February 19, 2010

Obscenity Laced Latte

Robert Friedman went to his local Starbucks in Boca Raton and ordered a coffee. He sat at a table and began swearing loudly while punching the wall with his fist. Alarmed by this behavior, the baristas called the cops and had Friedman removed. They asked that he not return to the store or he would be arrested for trespassing. End of story?

Not quite. Friedman suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, which leads to uncontrollable actions in his body and, on rare occasions, a stream of obscenities. Friedman, in other words, suffers from a recognized disability.

In its initial review of the case, the Florida Commission on Discrimination ruled in Starbuck's favor, determining that the baristas had no way of knowing that Friedman was disabled. The commission's own lawyer, however, over-ruled the investigators and found that Friedman had been a regular customer and was thus known to the baristas as a disabled person. As his behavior did not constitute an immediate threat to Starbucks staff or customers, the store had an obligation to accommodate him.

Ah, there's the rub. How exactly do you accommodate an individual who is swearing loudly and smashing walls with his fist? The commission wanted Starbucks to at least ask Friedman to stop behaving in an unruly manner before calling the cops. The commission noted that Friedman did offer an apology at the time of incident, before the police removed him from the premises.

Starbucks disagrees with the commission's findings and believes that its personnel took appropriate action to remove a disruptive customer from the store.

Outside the Comfort Zone
It is easy, perhaps too easy, to side with Starbucks in this situation. It's difficult enough to run a coffee house without worrying about accommodating unruly customers. But before you allow your distaste for bad behavior to slam the door in Friedman's tormented face, take a moment to view this video of children who suffer from Tourette's. They are victims of a cruel and random process that robs them of their dignity and compromises their ability to function in a challenging world. They deserve our sympathy.

As for Friedman, it is admittedly difficult to empathize with an adult who appears simply to behave badly. If we met him as a stranger, we would distance ourselves immediately. But once we know the source of his disruptive actions, he deserves at least a chance to re-establish his tenuous equilibrium. Tourette's puts us all outside our comfort zones - not necessarily a bad place to be. Friedman has to live with this problem every waking moment of his life; he has few, if any, comfort zones. We can accommodate Friedman for a few random moments, while enloying our lattes or going about the many tasks that comprise our hectic days. If nothing else, Friedman's situation reminds us that it is a great gift to be masters of our movements and of our words.



While I understand that Mr. Friedman has an unfortunate condition that does deserve sympathy, does he also deserve compensation for Starbucks actions? Not in my opinion. Were I a customer in that Starbucks at the time of Mr. Friedman's outburst I can't say whether I would recognize the behavior as Tourette's. If I did not and the Starbucks employees were doing nothing to address the situation I would probably leave the store (at least if the outburst were sustained). So the question arises: who should accommodate who because of the disability? Does Mr. Friedman have a right to be disruptive because he cannot control it? Does Starbucks not have a right to some measure of control over the environment they provide for their customers?

I admit that I neglected one fact in considering the situation: that Starbucks told him not to return. He should be allowed to return, but Starbucks should be allowed to take steps to address his outburst, by attempting to help him to a bathroom, help him outside (if those options are even feasible), or potentially even calling the police.

The unfortunate situation is that Mr. Friedman must live with certain limitations just as others with disabilities must live within certain limitations. He should probably stick to a routine. I'm sure there is a local starbucks he could go where they would be accepting of Mr. Friedman simply because he would be a regular and the familiarity would overcome the uneasiness about the occassional outbursts. But the more he ventures into new or unfamiliar places the greater the risk he will encounter problems.

I think the employer's duty to it's employees safety overrides compassion for the cause of erratic and threatening behavior from a customer. Starbuck's employees did the right thing when they called the cops. Who has time to make a diagnosis when someone is yelling and pounding the wall? I disagree with you on this one. Thanks.

I disagree with you and with the decision of the Florida Commission on Discrimination. It's not the responsibility of Starbucks, or anyone else, to discern whether a person who is acting crazy is dangerous vs disabled. If they would have ignored him, and he assaulted another customer, then they would get sued for ignoring an obvious threat to their customers.

It's just not fair to blame Starbucks for the situation. ANYONE else would have responded the same way. If someone came into your office and started cussing and punching the wall, you would call 911 immediately.

The decision puts a lot of weight on the fact that he was a regular. How does buying coffee, even if more then once, grant the employees priveledged medical information about the customer? Particularly when the disease does not consistently express symptoms?

There is also an implication that regular customers have greater enforceable rights then first time customers- that is hard to swallow.

I agree with you, Jon ONCE the knowledge is known about the disability.

Employers have a legal duty to provide safe workplaces (a fact you have used several times in earlier blogs) as well as a duty to the public.

Secondly the average person is not qualified to diagnose Tourettte's.

I believe that the safest course of action was taken and that unless intent to discriminate can be shown, the citizen is not owed monetary damages. Once known, then we should treat him the the same respect as others.


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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on February 19, 2010 9:41 AM.

Fresh Health Wonk Review; also - the power of pink, the bunkhouse rule, and more was the previous entry in this blog.

Independent Contractors and the (Deadly) Spirit of 1706 is the next entry in this blog.

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