Two black men who were arrested April 12 at a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia as they waited to meet an acquaintance for a business meeting have retained counsel from a well-known mass-tort civil litigation firm as protesters Monday staged sit-ins. Stewart Cohen of Cohen, Placitella & Roth has been retained to explore any possible civil suit, said Center City attorney Lauren Wimmer, who handled the case as the Philadelphia district attorney declined to press charges. Videos of the arrest quickly went viral under the hashtag #WaitingWhileBlack, and, since that time, there has been a growing public outcry and call for action from city officials. The company’s CEO issued an apology and arrived in Philadelphia to meet with the men. According to media reports, two unidentified men were waiting for local businessman Andrew Yaffe when they were arrested on April 12. The two were released after eight hours as the DA’s office rejected further action. Wimmer, a criminal defense attorney, handled the relatively short-lived criminal proceedings. According to Wimmer, whose office is not far from the Starbucks, she is friends with Yaffe, and he called her while the incident was unfolding. She said she called the charging unit at the District Attorney’s Office to see if it would be going forward, and was told that the office would not be pressing charged. Ben Waxman, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors at the charging unit made the ultimate decision not to press charges based on a lack of evidence. The decision was made within the charging unit without referral to the DA’s office upper management. “Fortunately, we were able to resolve it as quickly as possible,” Wimmer said. Wimmer said she referred the case to Cohen. The firm is widely known in the mid-Atlantic region for its focus on mass tort and high-profile personal injury cases, such as the Salvation Army building collapse case. Cohen is also no stranger to taking on large companies. In early 2017, he settled claims against Amazon in a case involving a University of Pennsylvania student who committed suicide using cyanide she bought through the online retail giant. Cohen did not return messages seeking comment Monday. By Monday, the arrests brought condemnation from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, CEO Starbucks Kevin Johnson, and others, including Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Starbucks failed these men and all of its customers by treating them in this unfair and demeaning way,” Shuford said in a press statement. “Based on all eyewitness accounts, there was no need for police intervention. These men were terribly disrespected by Starbucks employees.” Members of the Philadelphia City Council also had strong words for the company. At a press conference Monday, Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said he and other city officials had met with Kevin Johnson, but he said he was not impressed and more needs to be done to ensure that businesses cannot engage in any discrimination. “The meeting was all lip service. I’m not sold,” he told the crowd. Following the press conference, Councilman Derek Green said anti-discrimination legislation is already on the books to address this issue. “We have to see change in policy that will not allow this to happen going forward,” Green said. Green and Kenyatta Johnson both said they understand that the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission is investigating the incident.
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