Bloomberg Law

"A Starbucks Corp. barista sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment claim against the coffee chain after saying it failed to punish a supervisor that would go on to sexually assault her when she was a teenager.

The claim had been dismissed because the barista—M.H.—had said that Starbucks at one point punished Justin Mariani for misconduct involving another employee prior to M.H.'s assault. However, M.H. now says that Starbucks “waited too long to investigate Mariani” for sexual misconduct and “when it did investigate him, did not do so adequately,” Judge Dale E. Ho, of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, wrote. That was sufficient to allege a claim under the New York State Human Rights Law, Ho said in denying in part the coffee chain’s motion to dismiss Thursday.

M.H. alleges that Starbucks didn’t investigate Mariani in Nov. 2020 when a different female barista reported the supervisor for sexual harassment. M.H. said Mariani initially harassed her shortly after she started work in Dec. 2020. Starbucks did launch an investigation in Feb. 2021 after a female supervisor and a third female barista, also a teenager, reported similar behavior.

However, Mariani didn’t stop his behavior during the investigation, M.H. says, alleging that Starbucks spoke to some but not all of his female co-workers and harassment targets. In April 2021, the complaint says Mariani signed a written warning where Starbucks indicated he had violated its anti-harassment policies.

Mariani sexually assaulted M.H. on Apr. 17, 2021. Ho said that Starbucks terminated Mariani shortly after, and he pleaded guilty in 2022.

New York State amended its Human Rights Law in 2019 to be more lenient than Title VII regarding the elements of a hostile work environment claim. Under the amended version of the state law, a plaintiff need not allege an adverse employment action or severe and pervasive conduct, Ho explained.

Ho said that Mariani’s alleged workplace behavior sufficiently described a discriminatory motive for purposes of the state law claim.

An employer can’t be held liable under the New York law unless it condones, approves, or encourages the allege harassment, Ho explained. Starbucks’ alleged inaction and superficial investigation were sufficient at this stage to plausibly allege that the coffee chain condoned Mariani’s conduct, the court said.

While M.H.'s theory of Starbucks’ liability under the state law is “‘far from airtight,’” Ho said as alleged it couldn’t be dismissed this early in the litigation."

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