Emory Ellis, who lived on the streets in Boston, ventured into a Burger King in November 2015 to buy breakfast.
He left the restaurant under arrest, wrongfully accused of trying to pay for his meal with a fake $10 bill. He spent more than three months in jail.
This week, Ellis, 37, sued Burger King and the store franchisee for nearly $1 million, saying he was discriminated against for being black and homeless. The lawsuit comes amid a resurgence in a national debate about the treatment of black people in businesses and public spaces. From the two men who left a Philadelphia Starbucks in handcuffs, to five women reported to the police for golfing too slowly, to the graduate student who fell asleep in her dorm’s common room, the stories have refocused public attention on the risks and daily struggles of simply living while black.
“I know that had I walked into the Burger King with the exact same $10 bill, nobody would have scrutinized it,” said Ellis’s attorney, Justin Drechsler. “I never would have been accused of anything. I certainly wouldn’t have had the police called on me, no matter what the series of events.”
Drechsler said he is the same age, to the day, as Ellis — but Drechsler is white. Given his appearance alone, Drechsler said he believes that had the Burger King employee doubted whether his cash was authentic, the employee would have politely asked whether Drechsler could pay with something else.
“That’s not what happened here,” Drechsler said. He said Ellis could not comment for this article because of ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, said the Burger King cashier refused to return Ellis’s money and threatened to call the police if Ellis didn’t leave the restaurant.
The cashier, who is named in the lawsuit, “was plainly discriminating against Mr. Ellis based on Mr. Ellis’s appearance,” according to court documents. The cashier had not returned the money to Ellis when he called the police.
Ellis was arrested and charged with forgery of a bank note. The arrest spurred a probation violation, and Ellis was held without bail until his final probation violation hearing, the lawsuit said.
Ellis’s lawsuit was reported by Law360 and the Associated Press.
Ellis is suing in Suffolk Superior Court for $950,000.
The lawsuit says that not only did Ellis lose three months of his life to incarceration, but he also suffered substantial emotional distress, public humiliation and shame. He suffered from “sleeplessness, anxiety and depression associated with defending himself against this baseless charge that exposed him to a potential criminal sanction of life in prison,” according to court documents.
Ellis was held until February 2016 after the Secret Service determined the $10 bill was real, according to the lawsuit. His money was never returned.
A Burger King spokesperson told The Post that the company doesn’t tolerate discrimination “of any kind” but could not comment on ongoing legal matters. The company told the AP that franchisees are responsible for training employees and handling legal issues.
Two Guys Foods, the franchisee named in the lawsuit, could not be reached by The Post on Thursday.
Drechsler said Ellis’s story is “important for the ongoing national conversation that we are having about the different life experiences of individuals of different races in this country, and particularly the people of color in this country.”
“It’s important that these types of situations see the light of day,” he said.