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Cooper v. Starbucks Coffee Corp.

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

July 20, 2017

Omar Cooper, Petitioner,
v.
Starbucks Coffee Corporation, Respondent.

          Submitted December 1, 2016

          Decided June 6, 2017[*]

         Starbucks Coffee Corporation, Respondent. On Petition for Review of a Final Order of the Office of Administrative Hearings (DOES-368-15) (Hon. Jesse P. Goode, Administrative Law Judge)

          Weyinmi Shekoni, Student Attorney (No. 14599), Sempian Sooriakumar, Student Attorney (No. 14600), and Elliott S. Milstein, Supervising Attorney, were on the brief for petitioner.

          Before Beckwith and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.

          Nebeker, Senior Judge:

         Starbucks Coffee Corporation ("Starbucks"), respondent, terminated Omar Cooper, petitioner, due to his admitted use of profane language and alleged pushing of a co-worker, Deniene Sanders. Mr. Cooper, represented by student attorneys, challenges whether the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") erred in ruling that he is ineligible for eight weeks of unemployment compensation when the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") only relied upon hearsay evidence. Starbucks did not file a brief. We reverse and instruct OAH to award Mr. Cooper the requested unemployment benefits.

         FACTS

         Based on a business decision, Starbucks's litigation strategy relied entirely on the testimony of store manager Stephanie Brown and an unsigned, unsworn letter allegedly written by Michael McDuffie, another employee. Ms. Brown's testimony consisted mostly of secondhand information: Ms. Sanders notified Ms. Brown that during the morning coffee rush in DuPont Circle Ms. Sanders poured two espresso shots left on the bar into the sink, which caused Mr. Cooper to exclaim "what the fuck are you doing" and push Ms. Sanders. Ms. Sanders mistakenly believed the espresso shots had gone stale. Mr. Cooper denied pushing Ms. Sanders, but admitted that he used a profane statement. Even though Mr. Cooper testified that he offered to apologize to Ms. Sanders again in Ms. Brown's presence, Ms. Brown testified that she did not know whether Mr. Cooper and Ms. Sanders conversed after the incident.

         At the request of Ms. Brown, Mr. McDuffie memorialized what he witnessed during the incident. A photocopied version containing redactions was entered into evidence. Apparently, the signature of the unsworn letter was redacted. Ms. Brown alleged that she had the original document and testified that Mr. McDuffie signed the letter. Nonetheless, the letter as entered into evidence is unsworn and unsigned. In sum, the letter states that Mr. Cooper used profane language and pushed Ms. Sanders.[1]

         Following the conclusion of Starbucks's case-in-chief, Mr. Cooper moved for a "directed verdict" because Starbucks only put forth uncorroborated hearsay evidence, which is insufficient to constitute substantial evidence. The ALJ denied the motion.

         Mr. Cooper testified that he has consistently denied the alleged pushing. The only indication that Mr. Cooper was inconsistent in his innocence was his termination letter stating he pushed Ms. Sanders.[2] To this end, Mr. Cooper testified that although he left the employee statement section blank and signed the letter, he did not agree with its contents. At that time, Mr. Cooper believed objecting to the letter's contents was futile because Starbucks had already informed him of its decision to terminate and he felt he had no other choice. Ms. Brown testified that Mr. Cooper consistently denied pushing Ms. Sanders.

         To find that Starbucks's hearsay evidence was corroborated, the ALJ used Mr. Cooper's apology to Ms. Sanders. The ALJ asked why he apologized if profane language was ordinary in the workplace and Mr. Cooper responded that there had never been any animosity between them and that he felt bad because Ms. Sanders informed him that she was only trying to help and because she is old enough to be his mother. Mr. Cooper was already on his way to the employees-only area where he saw Ms. Sanders and apologized. Because profane ...


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