Starbucks job-application suit fails

by Walter Olson on December 18, 2008

Starbucks’s job application asked prospective baristas if they’d been convicted of a crime in the past seven years and added for “CALIFORNIA APPLICANTS ONLY”, at the end, that minor marijuana possession convictions more than two years old didn’t have to be disclosed, in accord with a state law along those lines. Entrepreneurial lawyers then tried to steam-press $26 million or so out of the coffee chain on the following theory: that the clarification was placed too far down the application after the original question; that Starbucks had therefore violated the California Labor Code; and that each and every Starbucks job applicant in California since June 2004, perhaps 135,000 persons, was owed $200 in statutory damages regardless of whether they had suffered any harm. Per John Sullivan of the Civil Justice Association of California, the lawyers also took the position that “it didn’t matter that two of the three job applicants who signed on as named plaintiffs testified in court that they read the entire application and knew they didn’t have to mention a marijuana conviction (which neither had anyway!)” The court refused to certify the class and made the following observations (courtesy CJAC blog):

* “There are better ways to filter out impermissible question on job applications than allowing ‘lawyer bounty hunter’ lawsuits brought on behalf of tens of thousands of unaffected job applicants. Plaintiffs’ strained efforts to use the marijuana reform legislation to recover millions of dollars from Starbucks gives a bizarre new dimension to the every day expressions ‘coffee joint’ and ‘coffee pot.'”

* “Enhancing the prospects for obtaining a settlement on a basis other than the merits is hardly a worthy legislative objective.”

* “Given the size of the class, the potential exposure is so large that the pressure to settle may become irresistible. …’This is a valid concern: Many corporate executives are unwilling to bet their company that they are in the right in in big-stakes litigation, and a grant of class status can propel the stakes of a case into the stratosphere …This interaction of procedure with the merits justifies an earlier appellate look. By the end of the case it will be too late — if indeed the case has an ending that is subject to appellate review.'”

* “The civil justice system is not well-served by turning Starbucks into a Daddy Warbucks.”

More coverage: Aaron Morris, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, and Carlton DiSante & Freudenberger. One of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case, H. Scott Leviant, is known for his blog The Complex Litigator.

{ 2 comments }

1 H. Scott Leviant 12.18.08 at 2:10 am

And much to my everlasting and published chagrin, I demonstrated the poor judgment of agreeing to help draft portions of the appellate briefing. The result is no surprise, and were it up to me, I would not have chosen to bring that type of claim in a suit.

Regards,

H. Scott Leviant
The Complex Litigator

2 Walter Olson 12.18.08 at 7:58 am

Thank you for that good-natured response (as well as this funny mention).

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