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St. Louis Starbucks workers stopped a robbery. Then Starbucks fired them — is that legal?

(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)
Former Starbucks employees Michael Harris and Devin Jones-Ransom were fired by the company in January, just weeks after the baristas prevented the Starbucks at 212 S. Grand Blvd. from being robbed.

Former Starbucks employee Michael Harris is suing the company for wrongful termination. The coffee giant fired Harris and his coworker Devin Jones-Ransom earlier this month, just weeks after the baristas prevented the Starbucks location at 212 S. Grand Blvd. from being robbed.

Harris and Jones-Ransom fought back against the robbers. When one of the robbers struck a patron over the head with his gun, it cracked, and they realized the gun was a fake.

The case was one of several legal issues taken up by St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable. Labor and employment attorney Sarah Swatosh said she would like to say that Harris has a good case for wrongful termination, but she doesn’t believe the argument works in this case.

“It goes against our intuition that if we are helping — if we are being a good Samaritan — we won't be punished for it, but that's simply not true. Most stores [and] retailers have a no-chase policy,” she said. “They simply won't let the employees stop thieves. The work comp risk is too high. The injuries are too high.”

In addition, Swatosh said, Harris’ lawsuit isn’t formally accusing Starbucks of firing him in retaliation for apprehending a thief. Rather, the suit accuses the company of firing Harris due to his previous complaints of unsafe conditions at the store.

“If he had called me, I would say, ‘Well, what was the nature of your complaints of unsafe conditions? Was it [that] the food was old, and you're serving spoiled food?’ Then the apprehension and the complaint don't really go hand in hand,” Swatosh said. “But if he's complaining about violence on the premises, and then he gets attacked, I'd say, ‘Well, that makes a lot more sense.’

“Our whistleblower law is really tight on who qualifies as a whistleblower,” she added, “and based on what I know of [Harris], he would absolutely qualify.”

To Eric Banks, an attorney and mediator at Banks Law, Harris has a solid case for wrongful termination because he wasn’t just facing the possibility of theft, but also violence.

“At a minimum, Starbucks’ general counsel should be fired, as well as their marketing/public relations department, for allowing it to get this far,” he said. “I understand that the miscreants told the customers to lie down, and then to give up their belongings. That sounds like a prelude to an execution to me.”

Banks, Swatosh and attorney Bevis Schock also discussed what’s next for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s lawsuit against the People’s Republic of China and a purported class-action lawsuit over the city's aborted curbside recycling program. Listen to the discussion on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

"St. Louis on the Air's" January Legal Roundtable convenes

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.