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Lawyer With Crohn's Says He Was Denied Access to Bathroom at Starbucks

Renee Fabian
Starbucks cup on counter

Stephen Marcus, a lawyer who has Crohn’s disease, urgently requested the use of a Boston Starbucks’ restroom during a flare. But, said staff denied him access to the employee restroom — a direct violation of state restroom access law for people who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Crohn’s disease is a type of IBD that causes symptoms such as chronic pain, bleeding, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue. Sometimes the symptoms can come on without warning, requiring the use of a restroom immediately. According to the Boston Globe, Marcus’s symptoms flared unexpectedly as he was walking to a business meeting. He rushed to the nearest Starbucks and asked to use the bathroom.

Per Marcus’s account, Starbucks staff informed him they didn’t have a public restroom, only a staff bathroom, and they directed him to public facilities across the street and down the block, their standard response. As a lawyer and Crohn’s advocate, Marcus knew a 2012 Massachusetts state law allowed him access to the employees-only restroom in the event of a medical emergency.

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Marcus told the Globe he produced a medical card signed by a physician indicating he had Crohn’s disease, as per the law, and was still denied access. Given the situation was an emergency, he ran out the door to try and reach the other restrooms down the block. However, as will be familiar to many who live with Crohn’s, when symptoms come on unexpectedly, they are not going to wait.

“Within 10 feet I had an ‘accident,’” Marcus told the Globe. “It was totally humiliating and totally unnecessary.”

The law Marcus cited when initially trying to gain access to the employees-only restroom is designed specifically for those who live with chronic digestive conditions, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Known as the Restroom Access Act, or “Ally’s Law,” it was first signed into law in 2005 in Illinois after 14-year-old Ally Bain was denied access to a restroom while shopping, which led to an accident. Since its signing in Illinois, about 15 other U.S. states adopted similar legislation.

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In Massachusetts, the law (section 26, Chapter 270, Title I, Part IV of general law) requires customers access to employees-only restroom when they provide evidence of an eligible medical condition as long as the three or more employees are working at the time and allowing a customer access doesn’t pose a health or safety risk for the customer, employees or other patrons. Failure to comply with the law incurs a first-time $100 fine.

Based on Marcus’s account, he maintains he had a legal right to access the restroom at Starbucks but was denied. According to a Starbucks representative, however, employees at the small kiosk location Marcus visited didn’t have time to register his request. A Starbucks representative told The Mighty:

At Starbucks, we take great pride in providing a warm and welcoming environment for everyone who enters our stores. This includes making reasonable accommodations for customers who visit our stores.

In this situation, Mr. Marcus left the store before our partners (employees) had a chance to understand his request to use the private restroom used by our partners. This store did not have a public rest room.  We have been in close contact with Mr. Marcus since this incident and have apologized to him for his experience.

We take great care to ensure that all stores are operating in accordance with local laws, including those that require access to private restrooms.

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This isn’t the first time a company came under fire for their bathroom policies. In February, Nicholas Stover, a former Amazon employee with Crohn’s disease, filed a lawsuit against the retail giant for refusing to accommodate his need to use the bathroom more frequently then allowed breaks because of his chronic illness. Amazon said Stover violated company policies by taking “too much personal time.” He is now suing for $3 million in damages, alleging his firing from the company was disability discrimination.

The Boston Globe reported Marcus chose to speak out about his experience to encourage Starbucks (along with other retailers) to raise awareness about bathroom access laws for those living with chronic digestive conditions.

The Mighty reached out to Stephen Marcus for comment and has yet to hear back.

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