The case of a former Starbucks employee suing the company for harassment and discrimination, claiming she was bullied and targeted by her manager on a daily basis after coming out as transgender, has taken a surprising turn.
According to a complaint filed at a Fresno Superior Court, Maddie Wade, a former barista at the coffee chain, alleges that upon beginning her transition, Dustin Guthrie, her ex-manager at a northwest Fresno, Calf. Starbucks, reduced her work hours, refused to call her by preferred pronouns, and later posted transphobic material on social media.
Wade says the mistreatment became so unbearable that she had to transfer to another location, where harassment continued. She was encouraged by her new supervisor to take the matter to the district manager, but after doing so, the situation went unresolved.
And at the advice of her therapist, Wade ultimately left Starbucks after nine years of employment due to the mental stress and “intolerable conditions,” according to the complaint.
She’s now seeking general damages, special damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees from Starbucks, stating that the loss of health insurance has kept her from receiving the treatment and procedures she needs to complete her transition. Furthermore, Wade claims that the Facebook page “Starbucks Partners – Pride Alliance Network,” which she describes as a “value marketing group” for its LGBTQ employees, continues to deny her from posting on its wall.
However, as the company enters Pride month, they are making moves that seem to run counter to their public record of LGBTQ acceptance. In the past, the company has scored 100 out of 100 on HRC’s 2018 Corporate Equality Index, released annual LGBTQ focused products for Pride and even rolled out trans inclusive healthcare within their insurance policy.
Lawyers representing the coffee giant have now filed a motion to dismiss Wade’s case entirely, asking the court to consider that, as a matter of law, refusal by a supervisor to call a trans person by their preferred name and pronoun cannot constitute discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Starbucks argues in its motion that refusing to call someone by their preferred pronoun does not meet the “severe or pervasive” standard for harassment, stating: “Indeed, for harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently sever or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”
The motion adds, “With the exception of Guthrie’s alleged failure to use female pronouns, none of Guthrie’s conduct is linked or otherwise associated with Plaintiff’s sex, gender, gender identity, and/or gender expression.”
According to Wade’s lawyer, Arnold Peter, if the court sides with Starbucks, the ruling could have far-reaching consequences for trans employees across the state. The hearing on the motion is set for June 11.
Starbucks’ motion directly contradicts the company’s Workplace Guidelines for Supporting Transgender Partners, which was obtained by The Advocate. According to the document for the guideline that is required for all U.S. and Canada employees, the company states, “A refusal to respect a partner’s request to be identified by the pronouns of choice is considered disrespectful (e.g., intentionally referring to a partner by a pronoun that does not correspond to the employee’s gender identity), and not in alignment with Our Mission and Values.”
Furthermore, a 2016 letter written by Lucy Helm, Law & Corporate Affairs and chair of the Starbucks Inclusion Council, affirms that sentiment: “Discrimination of any kind has no place in our company. As reflected in our Global Human Rights Statement, ‘Starbucks is committed to support and uphold the provision of basic human rights and to eliminate discriminatory practices.’”
The Advocate reached out to the attorneys who filed the motion on behalf of Starbucks with no reply at time of publishing.
However, a Starbucks spokesperson delivered a statement to The Advocate last year in regards to the case, stating, “At Starbucks, we strive to create a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome and have zero tolerance for the harassment of our partners or customers.”
“We encourage all of our partners to alert their local leadership the moment they feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work,” the statement then continued. “In those instances where partners don’t want to speak with their manager or choose to remain anonymous, we have processes in place that allow them to provide details over phone, email or fax.”
The company has covered gender reassignment surgery under their health insurance since 2012. In 2018, it made headlines when it expanded coverage of medical procedures for trans workers like Wade by adding breast and facial surgery, skin grafts, and hair transplants.
Wade began working at Starbucks nine years ago, and had never experienced any form of harassment before her transition. In fact, according to a deposition of a former colleague obtained by The Advocate, she was “one of the hardest workers I have ever seen, and she would come into work even when she was sick, even when she was exhausted.”
Having worked her way up to supervisor in 2014, Wade was later transferred to the Milburn location in 2016, where she ended up working under Guthrie. The two worked well together at first. As said in the deposition, her former colleague referred to them as “two peas in a pod” and “Dustin’s favorite.”
But their relationship turned sinister when Wade came out as trans and decided to utilize the health insurance benefits provided to Starbucks employees to begin the process of transitioning.
While the rest of the employees began using her preferred pronouns, Guthrie continued to marginalize Wade by only referring to her by her former name. He also used stigmatizing rhetoric like “bro” and “dude,” even in front of customers. The Advocate made several attempts to reach Guthrie for comment with no reply.
The harassment intensified as Guthrie began cutting her hours. According to one former colleague’s deposition, at one point Maddie confronted Guthrie about her hours getting cut. But instead of offering guidance, his solution was for her to “step down,” to which she replied: “No, that’s not what I want to do.”
It was around this time that Guthrie would also routinely share his political and religious views on social media. According to the complaint, he was Christian and dreamed of a career in politics. The lawsuit includes various posts displaying Guthrie’s his malevolence towards trans people.
On such posted by Guthrie from October 2014, reads: “Gender is not now, nor has it ever been a preference… Take your ‘purple penguins’ and shove it up your ass!”
Another, from September 2017 (around the time Wade came out to her coworkers), included a meme of John Wayne that reads: “CUTTING OFF YOUR PECKER DOES NOT MAKE YOU A WOMAN. IT JUST MAKES YOU A GUY THAT CUT OFF HIS DAMN PECKER.”
Wade eventually confronted Guthrie about the harassment, saying that she felt “punished,” but Guthrie assured her it was not a punishment. After leaving the Milburn location on March 11, 2018 to undergo facial feminization surgery, she ended up returning to work in May at a different location where, she says, customers continued to harass her.
Wade resigned in June 2018. Guthrie is still employed.
In May 2019, Wade wrote a former letter to Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, explaining her situation and informing him that the company’s attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss her case based on arguments that contradict the company’s own guidelines. She has not yet heard back from Johnson, and has not received any acknowledgment of the matter from her former district manager.
“This case matters because there are many transgender partners throughout Starbucks’ stores that rely on the safety of corporate supportive policies,” Wade recently told The Advocate when explaining why she continues to fight. “There seems to be a severe disconnect from the ideologies put forth by Starbucks Corporate and the policies applied on a local level.”
“There are many people out there suffering in similar circumstances,” she adds. “They need to know that this is a battle that can be won. We need to know that we don’t have to just be quiet and move on — which many believe is the only option.”