Gorilla Coffee’s defamation lawsuit against employees is tossed

Java the hurt! Gorilla Coffee sues the New York Times
Photo by Paul Martinka

Hooray! It’s not against the law to complain about your boss publicly!

That freedom was bolstered on Wednesday, when a judge dismissed a defamation case brought by the owners of Gorilla Coffee after several baristas publicly called them “perpetually malicious” and “demeaning.”

Supreme Court Judge Wayne Saitta ruled that the workers, who walked out en masse and posted their poison pen letter on the store’s front door were well within the limits of non-libelous free speech.

“It’s a great and important First Amendment victory,” said Martin Garbus, a top free speech lawyer who represented the baristas.

Saitta also dismissed the same claim against New York Times food writer Oliver Strand, explaining the scribe’s blog post about the dispute was legitimate journalism, not an endorsement of the allegedly libelous statement.

“I’m obviously relieved,” said Strand. “There wasn’t anything improper about what we did. Everything was backed up and properly documented.”

Former Gorilla Coffee employees also hailed the decision.

“We are extremely happy,” said Lee Harrison, a former staffer. “[It] sends a message to workers that you can stand up for your rights.”

The “Gorilla war” began — at least publically — last year, when workers staged a full-staff walkout that shuttered the hip coffee shop for two weeks.

The employees’ letter claimed that owner Carol McLaughlin acted more like a slave driver than a latte slinger, calling the workplace “unhealthy.”

The New York Times posted the letter on its City Room blog as neighbors wondered if the indie-rock-thumping nook — known for pretty foam hearts in bright red cups — actually had a dark side.

The shop reopened two weeks later with an army of new workers — but McLaughlin and co-owner Darleen Scherer claimed that the damage had already been done: They filed a lawsuit alleging that workers’ letter, coupled by bad press, had tarnished the shop’s reputation for having a “certain goodwill as merchants,” according to court documents.

The whole ordeal, they said, had caused a slump in business in the socially conscious neighborhood — a slump for which the former employees and the newspaper should be held responsible.

But on Wednesday, Saitta disagreed, ruling the letter was too opinion-driven to qualify as defamation — which is defined as, “making a false statement of fact” to disgrace a person or entity. Under First Amendment libel law, for example, one can publicly call her boss “cheap” — but one can’t claim that hhe steals money from her paycheck if he really does not.

Neither McLaughlin nor Scherer responded to calls and e-mails seeking comment, and their lawyer, Stephen Finkelstein, would say only, “We’re disappointed — but we have no comment.” When pressed, he added, “I don’t have time to give you a lesson in defamation.”

At the Fifth Avenue shop, one barista explained that she “hadn’t even heard about a lawsuit,” and that the bosses treat her fine.

Gorilla Coffee co-owner Darleen Scherer, seen in happier times, lost her defamation lawsuit against former employees who complained about her publicly.