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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

A Crohn’s disease sufferer asked to use a Starbucks bathroom. He was denied, but that’s illegal

Stephen Marcus suffers from Crohn's, an inflammatory bowel disease, but when he showed up at a Starbucks in downtown Boston with an urgent need to use the bathroom, access was denied, contrary to the 2012 bathroom access law.
Stephen Marcus suffers from Crohn's, an inflammatory bowel disease, but when he showed up at a Starbucks in downtown Boston with an urgent need to use the bathroom, access was denied, contrary to the 2012 bathroom access law. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

Stephen Marcus burst into a Starbucks store in downtown Boston one day this past spring with an urgent request. Marcus, 64, a longtime lawyer, has Crohn’s disease, which sometimes triggers a sudden and acute need to use the bathroom.

In 2012, Marcus had helped get a state law passed requiring retailers like Starbucks to open employee-only bathrooms to people suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis or other medical conditions.

Marcus had never before invoked the law. But on May 10, as he walked to a meeting in suit and tie, the dreaded symptoms struck.

Marcus spotted the Starbucks at the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets and made a run for it. He figured it was his only hope of avoiding a messy disaster brought on by his chronic and incurable disease.

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Here is his recollection of the exchange he had at the Starbucks counter:

“I need to use the restroom right away,” he said.

“We don’t have any restrooms,” an employee replied. (Not true; there’s one for employees.)

“You are required under the law to allow me to use the employees’ restroom,” he said, his voice rising.

Marcus said he held up a wallet-size card, signed by a physician, certifying his medical condition and citing the 7-year-old bathroom-access law. (Fifteen other states have similar laws.)

But one of the employees told him to go across the street and down the block to a restaurant with public-use bathrooms, according to Marcus.

Marcus dashed out the door, but it was too late.

“Within 10 feet I had an ‘accident,’ ” he said when we met at his office in Braintree.

Marcus said he continued to the restaurant, where he cleaned up in the bathroom.

“It was totally humiliating and totally unnecessary,” he said.

A Starbucks representative I contacted gave me a significantly different version, one that seems to minimize Starbucks’ responsibility.

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The Starbucks rep said Marcus entered the store, said something about the bathroom, then left before any employee had a chance to understand or respond to him.

Starbucks would not tell me what was said between Marcus and its employees.

In its telling, Starbucks didn’t deny Marcus access (and thus violate the law); it was Marcus who went weirdly running into the street before employees could react.

Marcus is a consummate lawyer and a dedicated fund-raiser for Crohn’s medical research, a well-known figure for decades in certain circles. It’s hard to believe this founder of a law firm would fail to cite his legal rights or to flash his medical access card — or leave without getting a reply to his desperate demand for a bathroom. But that is what Starbucks would have me believe.

I think the employees told Marcus what they told me when I asked for a bathroom last week while anonymously retracing Marcus’s steps: Go across the street and down the block.

Marcus isn’t looking for money. “There isn’t a dollar amount that will restore the dignity they took from me,” he said.

What he does want is for Starbucks to join him in a public awareness campaign on bathroom-access laws, including displaying decals at their stores.

(The number of Americans diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease has steadily increased and is now estimated at 3 million.)

Starbucks has declined to do so.

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Starbucks says its public restrooms are available to anyone, with or without a purchase. The company made that clear, belatedly, last year, after two black men waiting for a friend were arrested in a Philadelphia store following a request by one of them to use the bathroom without having made a purchase.

Following a national outcry, the company closed more than 8,000 stores for several hours the following month and trained 175,000 employees on racial bias.

But some Starbucks stores, like the one on Tremont Street, have no public restrooms. This is where Starbucks needs to step up and make clear to employees and customers alike that employee bathrooms must be made available in medical emergencies.

Corporately, Starbucks has shown it knows how to do the right thing.

So just do it.

A lesson from a reader

Sometimes the advice I get from readers is top-notch.

A couple of months ago, Scott Weighart wrote to me about a $100 loss he took when the soccer jerseys he ordered online from a British firm didn’t come. He faulted Citibank, his credit card company, for not covering him when he filed a dispute.

I ended up taking a pass on his request for help. But Weighart proved himself to be quite effective without me: First, he told Citibank how long he’s been a customer and how little he has ever asked of the company, then provided a “concise and convincing narrative about the situation.”

He got his money back.

His key to success?

“Being polite, factual, and keeping communications in writing,” he wrote.

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Don’t get too good at this kind of thing, Scott. I’d like to keep my job.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.