Michigan’s expanded Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) will take center stage in an upcoming civil case brought by two queer employees fired in a single day by an overtly religious Biggby Coffee shop franchise owner in Mount Pleasant. A third LGBTQ+ employee not named in the suit was also fired on the same day.
The three workers — a transgender man, a bisexual woman and a lesbian — had worked at the store for months with no apparent performance issues, but in June, one of the employees put up a Pride Month display that the shop’s 32-year-old co-owner, Landon Palmer, deemed “too political.” The next day, he fired them all.
Now, Palmer is being sued in Isabella County Circuit Court under Michigan’s freshly revised civil rights law, which specifically addresses discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace. REALS-Palmer, an LLC owned by Rodney and Eileen Palmer, who own the Biggby located at 4445 E. Bluegrass Road in Mount Pleasant, is also named in the suit. The suit alleges that Palmer wrongfully terminated the employees because of who they love and how they identify — the ELCRA bars discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBTQ+ Project, notes that if Palmer fired the employees because he doesn’t approve of their orientation, he could be running afoul of not only Michigan’s ELCRA, but Federal Title VII, as well, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in employment. Kaplan pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, which found that LGBTQ+ employees were protected against discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The plaintiffs in the case against Palmer allege that his personal beliefs are at the heart of why they were let go and that he put his religious beliefs above their civil rights. After the firings, the employees were replaced with heterosexuals.
The lawsuit includes a detailed account of what the former employees say happened at the coffee shop and a depiction of Palmer’s openly expressed religious and anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs. According to the lawsuit, Palmer belongs to a church that espouses the scientifically inaccurate belief that the only genders are male and female. The church also preaches that marriage is a union exclusive only to one man and one woman. Nonheterosexual romantic relationships are sinful, according to the church. Palmer, the plaintiffs allege, frequently posted flyers promoting the church around the shop, hosted church-related events onsite and frequently talked about the church.
On June 11, Palmer removed a Pride Month-themed “trivia chalkboard.” The chalkboard space featured holidays and events throughout the year like Black History Month and Women’s History Month. The Pride Month theme included questions like “What geographical location has the most rainbows each year?” and “What year was the first Pride parade?”
Two days later, the suit alleges, Palmer was sitting in the customer dining room when one of the plaintiffs came in to buy a cup of coffee. She chatted with a coworker about deciding on a gift for her girlfriend’s upcoming birthday. The owner overheard the conversation and, the lawsuit states, "noticeably reacted to hearing this.”
The next day, Palmer fired the three employees, including 23-year-old trans man Edwin Williamson, 25-year-old lesbian Mikaila Brown and a bisexual woman who is not named in the lawsuit. The employees allege that Palmer refused to give a reason for firing them.
Williamson reached out to Biggby’s communications coordinator by email. The Detroit Free Press, which reviewed the emails, reports that Williamson wrote: "We feel our terminations were unjust and discriminatory. … Of the employees terminated, three of us are openly queer. Given that we were not given a legitimate reason behind our terminations, we are concerned about the legality of our terminations and would like to speak with a human resources representative for Biggby Coffee to further explain and understand our situation."
A communication coordinator wrote back with this response: "We are very sorry to hear about the trouble at this location. Biggby Coffee is committed to embracing diversity, celebrating individuality, and supporting equality for all. We believe that by creating an inclusive environment, we can provide a warm and welcoming experience for all individuals who work in or visit our stores. At Biggby Coffee we strive to foster an atmosphere where everyone feels accepted, valued, and free to be themselves."
The coordinator indicated that the corporate office is not involved in store-level decisions and encouraged Williamson to reach out to the store owner. Williamson replied that the store owner was the person who fired him. In response, the coordinator wrote, "We are very sorry to hear about how this has been received and appreciate you taking the time to bring it to our attention! While we are unable to guarantee the follow-up action taken by the store owner as a result of this feedback, we will send it directly to Landon so that he has the opportunity to follow up accordingly. This incident is also being reviewed internally. … I hope you have a beautiful weekend!"
Hearings for the suit have yet to be scheduled, according to publicly available Isabella County Courthouse records.