Friday, June 22, 2018
C.A. Affirms Judgment Against Starbucks for Discrimination
By SHANE PATRICK ETCHISON, Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal has upheld a litigious wheelchair-bound plaintiff’s latest successful discrimination lawsuit under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, this one against coffee giant Starbucks.
The opinion, filed Wednesday and not certified for publication, was by Justice Franklin D. Elia. It affirms the Santa Clara Superior Court’s judgment but modifies the specifics of the injunctive relief awarded. It also reduces the attorney fees awarded to plaintiff by $210, and remands calculations of certain other fees.
The plaintiff in the case, Alma Clarisa Hernandez, visited the Starbucks in San Jose in December 2011. During that visit, she claimed she was unable to successfully pay for her purchases or navigate the store because merchandise displays blocked her wheelchair
She also claimed that a trash can blocked her access to the restroom.
After a three-day bench trial, the judge held that Starbucks was liable for several violations of the Unruh Act. He awarded Hernandez $4,000 and required that Starbucks cure the violations. It also awarded Hernandez $158,880.50 in attorney fees.
Capital Square Partners, the owner of the land where the Starbucks is located, settled with Hernandez prior to trial and was not party to the appeal.
Article III Irrelevant
Starbucks challenged the injunctive relief by claiming that Hernandez lacked the necessary standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.
The opinion rejected this argument. Elia pointed out that Hernandez had sued under the Unruh Act, not the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). He quoted language from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion in ASARCO Inc. v. Kadish stating that Article III standing requirements do not apply to state courts.
“The fact that the Act incorporates the ADA, a federal statute, by reference does not change that fact. In sum, the immediate danger of future injury requirement is not an element of an ADA claim, as Starbucks suggests, but a requirement of Article III standing that has no bearing on this proceeding. We therefore reject Starbucks’s contention that plaintiff lacked standing to pursue [injunctive] relief.”
The injunctive relief awarded by the lower court required Starbucks to maintain the statutory widths for its passages, and a five-pound operating pressure for its doors. It also required the store to ensure that trash cans in the bathroom did not interfere with disabled access.
The coffee chain challenged all of these requirements, but the court upheld most of them. It was not persuaded that Starbucks had intentionally put a trash can in the restroom to block disabled patrons.
Because Hernandez brought suit under the Unruh Act and not the ADA, that intentional discrimination was key. Elia explained:
“Intentional discrimination is an element of an [Unruh] Act claim that is not premised on an ADA violation….We agree with Starbucks that substantial evidence does not support a finding that the placement of the restroom trashcan was an act of intentional discrimination against individuals with mobility disabilities requiring the use of a wheelchair.”
The Court of Appeal also reversed the requirement that Starbucks maintain a certain statutory clearance in front of its cash register, noting that it was not shown on the record that they had actually violated that clearance.
In upholding most of the attorney fees awarded to Hernandez, the appellate opinion defers to the leeway that lower courts are afforded in determining such fees. It does conclude, however, that given the modification to the injunctive relief, the trial court must reconsider whether to adjust the award based on the plaintiff’s limited success.
The case is Hernandez v. Starbucks Coffee Company, H042848.
Hernandez is no stranger to bringing lawsuits against business under both the Unruh Act and the ADA. The win against Starbucks is only her latest discrimination lawsuit in the past several years.
She settled a case against Grain d’Or, a bakery in a now-defunct shopping mall in Cupertino, in 2011.
In 2013, she brought a suit against the owners of a Vietnamese restaurant for preventing her from accessing their restroom.
She sued a gas station owner for accessibility issues under the Unruh Act in 2015.
In January of this year, she won a motion for attorney fees against the same Vietnamese restaurant that she sued in 2013. The motion was brought in a new lawsuit which claimed the restaurant refused to serve her in 2016 as retaliation for the previous suit.
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