Workers Prevail Against Gorilla Coffee's Anti-Free Speech Lawsuit

Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:22am

August 10, 2011

Contact: press (at) brandworkers.org

New York, NY- State Supreme Court Justice Wayne P. Saitta has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Gorilla Coffee against a group of its former employees who spoke out regarding management's behavior at the company.  After sustained attempts to improve what they viewed as a hostile work environment at the prominent Brooklyn-based cafe and coffee roaster, the workers caused a stir in the gourmet coffee community and in the news media by resigning their employment as a group and discussing their decision in a letter to the New York Times. 

The letter is available online- http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/gorilla-coffee-workers-arent-coming-back/

The workers were defended pro-bono by prominent First Amendment litigator Martin Garbus and Brandworkers, a workers' rights non-profit for retail and food employees.  Gorilla Coffee sued the New York Times in the same case and that complaint was dismissed as well.

"My co-workers and I did nothing but truthfully express our opinion regarding the lack of respect for employees at Gorilla Coffee," said Lee Harrison, a former worker at the cafe and a defendant in the dismissed lawsuit.  "We are extremely happy to win the case and to send a message to coffee workers and all workers that you can stand up for your rights."

A well-known Park Slope institution, Gorilla Coffee was shuttered for over two weeks after essentially the entire staff resigned en masse last year.  The workers took issue with what they viewed as the heavy-handed management style of operations director Carol McLaughlin and finally had enough when it became clear that company owner Darleen Scherer was unwilling to remedy the situation.  In their letter to the Times, the workers cited their repeated attempts to create a tolerable work environment at Gorilla Coffee, attempts which ultimately proved unsuccessful.  Instead, they were left to deal with a workplace that in their view represented a, "...perpetually malicious, hostile, and demeaning work environment that was not only unhealthy, but also, as our actions have clearly shown, unworkable."

"Anti-speech lawsuits like the one from Gorilla Coffee can have a dangerous chilling effect on the robust exchange of opinions in the public arena," said Martin Garbus.  "The lawsuit had no merit and this victory is an important vindication of workers' First Amendment right to speak out in the news media."

Though an increasing number of workers find themselves in retail food service jobs, collective activity is still all too rare in the sector.  Group efforts to highlight the difficulties of these low-wage jobs should be applauded, not subjected to intimidation tactics from employers.

"Brandworkers is proud to have stood with these dedicated and talented baristas," said Daniel Gross, an attorney and the organization's executive director.  "By speaking out against injustice and standing their ground against a bullying lawsuit, the workers have set a superb example for everyone dealing with unfair and arbitrary work environments."

Brandworkers is a New York-based non-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food employees.  By empowering employees with legal, advocacy, and organizing tools, Brandworkers promotes employer compliance with the law and challenges corporate misconduct in the community.  The Brandworkers Legal Defense-Plus program provides free legal representation, information, and advice to employees around the country and facilitates collective strategies for workplace change.

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