Emory Ellis, an African-American homeless man, walked into a Burger King in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, expecting to buy breakfast with the small amount of cash he had. He never imagined such a decision would lead him to prison. Now, his legal representative has explained the impact the incident had on his life.
On a morning in November 2015, Ellis handed the staff member a $10 bill to pay for his order. However, the worker denied him the meal. What’s more, they refused to give him back the cash and told him to leave the restaurant.
The cashier accused Ellis of handing them a forged $10 bill. He had no more money, and he argued his case. It soon became clear the staff member wouldn’t be swayed, but Ellis refused to leave the restaurant. Soon after, staff called the police.
The police arrived at the Burger King and arrested Ellis. Soon after, they charged him with forgery of a bank note. This is a serious offence. If found guilty, the accused could end up with a life sentence in jail.
To make matters worse, the arrest had broken the terms of Ellis’ probation for a previous unrelated crime. And as a result, police sent him to jail with no option of bail. He remained there for three months, according to Mother Jones.
Then in February 2016, the Secret Service discovered the $10 bill Ellis handed the cashier was indeed legitimate. The homeless man had not committed any crime. Prosecutors dropped the forgery charge and the authorities released him.
It’s important to understand that it’s not a crime to unknowingly pass on a counterfeit bill. In order for it to be judged as a criminal offense, an intent to defraud the seller must be proven. Still, Ellis had been arrested without even accidentally passing on a bogus note.
Following the incident, Ellis has launched a lawsuit against Burger King, seeking damages of $950,000. His case states that he suffered discrimination because of his skin color and financial circumstances.
Elis’ legal complaint claims the actions of the Burger King staff member had been motivated by his untidy appearance. He is seeking compensation for his three months spent in jail, damages for defamation and violation of his civil rights. It also alleges that he never received his original $10 back.
Ellis’ white attorney Justin Dreschler said he doubted such an incident would have taken place if a Caucasian man dressed in a suit had handed over the bill. “A person like me would’ve gotten an apology, but a person like [Ellis] somehow finds his way in handcuffs for trying to pay for his breakfast with real money,” he told the Associated Press.
Elis’ legal action elaborates on the trauma he suffered as a result of his jail time. It states he suffered from mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. It also argues that he experienced public humiliation and emotional distress as a result of the incident.
Elis’ lawyer Drechsler argued that his client’s homelessness shouldn’t have a bearing on his compensation. He told Mother Jones, “When you negotiate with these […] companies, they’ll say “Well, he didn’t lose any wages’. He lost his goddamn freedom! You think the wages mean anything?”
Burger King Corporation told the Daily Mail that it has a zero tolerance policy to any kind of discrimination. However, it said that it couldn’t comment on any individual elements of the case. The franchisee, Two Guys Food, is responsible for the training of its employees and any legal matters regarding its locations.
Drechsler told Mother Jones that Two Guys Food offered a $10,000 out-of-court settlement to Ellis. However, they decided the amount to be not sufficient. The lawyer called it “a nuisance money offer.” He told the website, “Acts of discrimination, subtle and not so subtle, happen every day, and most of them don’t see the light of day because most of them don’t result in any consequences.”
This case is about more than money, Drechsler said. He feels the need to discourage this sort of behavior from other corporations. He told Mother Jones, “If [Ellis] was in it for a quick buck, he would have just taken the $10,000. How many homeless people do you know that would turn down that money?”
Finer details of the incident will surely emerge once the court case takes place. But it has already reignited the debate surrounding the treatment of ethnic minorities by individuals and international brands. The topic then reignited in April 2018 when two African-American men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks. Staff had called the police and accused the pair of trespassing as they hadn’t ordered anything. The men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, argued that they had been simply waiting for a friend.
The subsequent arrests of Robinson and Nelson led to accusations of racism, a protest outside the cafe and ultimately an apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. The two individuals settled the lawsuit out of court. The men received $1 each and the city donated a further $200,000 towards a youth entrepreneurship program.
Meanwhile, Lolade Siyonbola, a black Yale University student, had her very own grim experience. According to The Independent, another student had called the police on her after she fell asleep in a common room on campus. She reported Siyonbola as being “unauthorized” to be in the room and police questioned her for 15 minutes. They later determined she could legally be in the building.
There are plenty of other incidents of white people calling the police on ethnic minorities that have made the news in 2018. One of the best-known examples is that of Alison Ettel, whose story went viral after she rang the police to report an eight-year-old girl selling water without a permit.
Meanwhile, African-American man Ellis is currently drifting between homeless shelters, friends’ spare rooms and occasionally the streets. He told Mother Jones that a successful lawsuit will provide the leverage he needs to find a permanent home and a job. It might also let ethnic minorities across America know that they needn’t suffer discrimination alone.