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Woman who refused to wear mask sues man who raised $100,000 for Starbucks barista

Lenin Gutierrez, a Starbucks barista
Lenin Gutierrez, a Starbucks barista who asked a customer to wear a mask, got berated by her on social media and wound up the beneficiary of a GoFundMe campaign that brought in $105,000.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Last year, a fundraising campaign made national news.

It started in June when a San Diego Starbucks barista refused to serve a maskless customer. She snapped a photo of the barista and posted it on Facebook, saying “next time, I will wait for the cops and bring a medical exemption.”

Her post went viral and inspired an Orange County man to create a GoFundMe campaign. Not for the customer, but for the barista.

The campaign, he wrote, was for the barista’s “honorable effort standing his ground when faced with a Karen in the wild.” The story made headlines. His call for tips raised $100,000 for the worker.

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Now the customer, Amber Gilles, is suing the creator of the GoFundMe campaign, Matt Cowan. Allegations in her complaint, filed last week in San Diego Superior Court, include misappropriation of her name and likeness, and invading privacy in a false light.

According to Gilles’ filing, she has lost online referrals as a yoga instructor and suffered “public scorn.” She has also received hate mail and death threats.

Cowan, reached Wednesday, said he is in talks with attorneys. “Personally, I think that this is a baseless lawsuit, and that Amber is seeking to profit off the good deed that I did in arranging the fundraiser for Lenin [Gutierrez, the barista] in June of last year,” he said.

The suit does not specify an amount, but rather seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as $750 for each violation of a California code barring use of a person’s likeness for certain uses without consent. Gilles’ attorney Michael Harrington said Thursday that his client is not asking for money from the barista, who is not a party to the suit.

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The tale began in June when Gilles posted the photo on her Facebook page with the message, misspelling the barista’s name: “Meet lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me because I’m not wearing a mask. Next time, I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption.”

Cowan saw the post and asked a friend who lived near the Clairemont Starbucks, where the incident happened, to drop $10 in the tip jar for the barista.

Cowan said he started the GoFundMe as a way for him and friends to get more money to the barista’s tip jar. His post included a screenshot from Gilles’ Facebook post.

More than $100,000 poured in. He said he turned all of it (save for fees and taxes) over to Gutierrez.

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Shortly after the story exploded last summer, the Union-Tribune reported that Gutierrez posted a video to say he had tried to explain the store’s mask policy to Gilles and offer a way to still serve her, but that Gilles cursed, called other customers “sheep” and left.

California requires people to wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Gilles’ suit also targets the media company Cowan founded. Cowan said his company had nothing to do with it.

Both sides have turned to GoFundMe to crowdsource their legal fees.

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Gilles’ page is titled “Redress Defamation of Character,” and had raised nearly $6,000 as of Thursday afternoon. Cowan’s page is titled “Help I’m being sued by a Karen for raising money,” and had raised more than $21,000.


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