Starbucks Wins Summary Judgment After Manager Alleges Retaliation for Pest Strip Warning

In an opinion issued Monday, a Southern District of New York judge granted summary judgment in favor of Starbucks, rejecting a former store manager’s allegations that he was fired in retaliation for reporting underpayment of wages and the use of potentially dangerous pest control strips. Two pest control company employees, who contracted with the Starbucks location in question, were also plaintiffs in the suit.

Plaintiff Rafael Fox, the store manager, brought two retaliation claims against Starbucks, one alleging that he was terminated for reporting the underpayment of wages and another arising from his report of the usage of pest-control strips that are known to be – and labeled as – dangerous.

The court disposed of the first retaliation claim, finding that while Fox was engaging in a protected activity, there was no persuasive evidence of a casual connection between Fox’s report and his termination. The court undertook a deeper analysis as to the pesticide claims, but still favored Starbucks, as Fox was unable to establish that Starbucks pretextually fired him. The court found that even if, as Fox alleged, “Starbucks managers continued to purchase pest strips despite repeated emails from their supervisors not to do so, and that Starbucks has not fully investigated the use of pest strips or terminated managers that used them,” this does not raise inconsistency in the justification for his firing. According to Starbucks, Fox was terminated for violations of New York’s Fair Workweek law.

Alongside Fox’s claims, the two pest control employees alleged negligent infliction of emotional distress due to their feeling of “fear, stress, and anxiety from repeated exposures to the pest strips at Starbucks stores.” The court rejected these claims as well, finding that Starbucks did not owe them a duty of care under New York law, as the hazards they experienced were expected given their line of work. The court also found that the pest control plaintiffs did not have the required guarantee of genuineness.

The plaintiffs are represented by Filosa Graff, and the defendants by Littler Mendelson.