The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), a conservative think tank, recently initiated a lawsuit against Starbucks.

They lost.

The legal action challenged Starbucks’ commitment to its diversity and inclusion initiatives, alleging that their efforts were not only discriminatory but that they also adversely affected the company’s financial performance. However, Starbucks has been a brand that has been historically committed to DEI—and equal pay practices. 

They took these claims seriously, as did other companies similarly committed to DEI and their ability to implement programs to drive DEI efforts. This judgment illustrates how courts are increasingly upholding the business judgment rule and resisting intervention in corporate diversity initiatives despite heightened scrutiny. 

Background on the Starbucks Lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by National Center for Public Policy Research (“NCPPR”) against Starbucks challenged the coffee company’s diversity initiatives, claiming that they were discriminatory  and that they violated federal securities laws. The NCPPR holds about $6000 in Starbucks stock. They argued that policies like setting hiring goals for Blacks and other people of color, awarding contracts to “diverse” suppliers and advertisers, and tying executive pay to diversity, led the company to make race-based decisions that were in violation of federal and state civil rights laws. 

The lawsuit was filed in August 22 in Spokane, Washington and was moved to federal court in November. The Federal Court of the Eastern District of Washington dismissed the suit, upholding the business judgment rule and supporting Starbucks’ diversity initiatives. 

The Business Judgment Rule

The key driver of this lawsuit’s dismissal was the business judgment rule, a legal principle that plays a critical role in corporate governance.

The business judgment rule indicates that, as long as corporate directors and executives make decisions in good faith, courts should refrain from second-guessing those decisions. It’s a foundational rule that offers a safeguard for corporate directors and officers as they deal with complex business issues and make decisions that they believe will ultimately benefit their companies and their shareholders. 

The business judgment rule is based on a presumption that corporate directors are acting in good faith. To overcome this presumption, plaintiffs—like NCPPR—must prove that directors exhibited gross negligence or bad faith, or had a conflict of interest in making their decisions.

In rejecting NCPRR’s claim, Chief US District Judge Stanley Bastian said: “(i) if the plaintiff doesn’t want to be invested in ‘woke’ corporate America, perhaps it should seek other investment opportunities rather than wasting the court’s time.”

Business Implications for Corporate Diversity Initiatives

This dismissal has some significant implications for businesses around the country. For one thing, it reinforces the autonomy of corporations to implement and manage diversity initiatives without fear of legal ramifications, as long as they act in good faith and within legal parameters. That kind of legislative support is critical to allow companies to have autonomy in creating more inclusive and diverse workplaces.

In addition, the decision sends a strong message to potential litigants who might seek to challenge corporate diversity programs. Recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion in today’s business and social environment, courts are increasingly reluctant to intervene in these situations.

This is a trend that is likely to discourage frivolous lawsuits, allowing companies to focus on fostering inclusive environments without the fear of legal ramifications hanging over their heads. It’s also an important reminder to companies to take steps to measure the impact of their DEI programs through active monitoring.

The dismissal of NCPPR’s lawsuit against Starbucks isn’t just a victory for the coffee giant but for all corporations committed to investing in DEI initiatives without fear of interference or reprisal. By relying on the business judgment rule, the court has underscored support for corporate autonomy in diversity initiatives. 

That’s a big win for all of us. 

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