A Starbucks employee, fired after more than 20 years with the company, says she was essentially made a scapegoat after another employee was caught spitting into a police officer's drink in 2020.

Kelly Hansen-Grosman, of the Hewitt section of West Milford, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit on Jan. 6, against the Starbucks Corporation, as first reported by NorthJersey.com.

She also has accused the company of disability discrimination, based on her diagnosis with attention deficit disorder.

Two of her company superiors also are named as defendants, district manager Matthew Phillips and regional manager Michael Scott, who further is accused of invasion of privacy.

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In her lawsuit, Hansen-Grosman said that she was never accused of poor conduct until late July 2020 following her reports to Phillips about the allegation that a barista had spit into a law enforcement officer’s drink and her pledge to Park Ridge Police to cooperate with their investigation.

“We care deeply about the experience every partner has while wearing the green apron, but with respect to our partners we are unable to comment further on private employment matters and pending litigation,” a spokesperson for Starbucks said when asked for comment.

Exemplary work record

Hansen-Grosman had been a Starbucks employee since 2000, working her way up the ranks from barista. In 2016, she became a store manager in helping open the Park Ridge location.

She was recognized by the company and local officials for community dedication, with several awards, according to her lawsuit.

In June 2020, the district manager visited the store along with a regional manager to present Hansen-Grossman with a plaque honoring her 20 years of service with Starbucks.

A week later, one of the store's baristas, Kevin Trejo, failed to show up for a store meeting and days after that, “abandoned his shift.”

In July 2020, Hansen-Grosman was made aware of an accusation that Trejo was rumored to have spit into the drink of a law enforcement officer a couple of months earlier.

She reported the allegation to the district manager while interviewing each worker, all of whom denied having any knowledge of such an incident.

The district manager told her she could fire Trejo for abandoning his shift roughly a week earlier, her lawsuit says.

Kevin Trejo (Park Ridge Police)
Accused ex-barista, Kevin Trejo (Park Ridge Police)

Hansen-Grosman said that she did not feel comfortable firing Trejo, as there
was an open investigation from a separate allegation by Trejo that he had been discriminated against by a co-worker.

Within two weeks, she received a call from a Park Ridge Police detective, who said they were investigating the allegation of Trejo spitting into an officer’s drink.

Hansen-Grosman notified Starbucks of the police involvement and Trejo was arrested within days after working a shift at the store.

He was charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, tampering, and creating a hazardous condition.

According to Hansen-Grosman’s suit, that’s when the tone of her interactions with upper management appeared to shift drastically.

Concerns over conduct

Hansen-Grosman was instructed to fire Trejo and to contact Park Ridge police to set up a meeting due to her “tremendous community outreach.”

The district and regional manager, accompanied by another Starbucks executive, then visited the Park Ridge location and one of them said that it did “not represent a multimillion-dollar store," according to the lawsuit.

The regional manager took down community photos, removed store decorations, and rearranged store furniture and displays, the suit says.

Hansen-Grosman then received a message from Park Ridge police on a possible meeting — the district manager told her not to respond, according to the lawsuit.

The following day, the manager returned to the store and asked to see the text messages on her personal cell phone with the Park Ridge detective.

When she showed him, Scott grabbed her cell, scrolled through her text messages, walked away with it and read texts aloud to someone on his own phone, according to Hansen-Grosman.

He asked if he could screenshot the text thread, while also asking if she had a “personal relationship” with the officer, according to the lawsuit.

“I was made to feel like I did something wrong with how I reached out to the police department, but I was given no direction or guidelines from anyone about how to connect,” Hansen-Grosman told Phillips in an email.

“I love my store, my community and my company. I have been with Starbucks for 20 years and have always been proud to be a partner. I have always felt like Starbucks was a unique company because of the support and openness we show our partners. Today, I feel disparaged and unwelcome,” Hansen-Grosman said in the July 2020 email.

The next day, another person was appointed as Park Ridge store manager, while Hansen-Grosman was told there would be “uncomfortable times ahead” for her, according to the suit.

Performance issues raised

Days later, Phillips and another regional manager delivered a “verbal draft” of a Starbucks performance improvement plan, ultimately issued in August 2020 to Hansen-Grosman.

The alleged conduct and incidents detailed in the plan were said to date back to late 2019 and early 2020 — none of which had been previously addressed, Hansen-Grosman said.

“I believe the company is retaliating against me because of the actions I took in connection with the Kevin Trejo incident. Prior to those events, I was celebrated as a manager and now, after those events, the company is falsely criticizing my performance,” Hansen-Grosman said in a September 2020 email to Phillips.

The plan launched regular meetings for review and discussion, under the PIP protocol.

According to the lawsuit, in October 2020 Hansen-Grosman's diagnosis with attention deficit disorder came up during a meeting with Phillips, at which he said that ADD spoke to her “approach as a manager.”

Hansen-Grossman then reported Phillips for retaliation and Scott for invasion of privacy to Starbucks’ Ethics and Compliance hotline, which was followed by several more months of tense and combative meetings, according to her lawsuit.

She was fired on Jan. 15, 2021, by Philips and another district manager, due to “failure to meet the expectation of her role and responsibilities as outlined in the store manager job description.”

Hansen-Grosman is seeking monetary compensation, including back pay.

She also has requested that Phillips and Scott be required to take part in additional harassment training and anti-discrimination training.

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