Judge dismisses Whole Foods workers' lawsuit over 'Black Lives Matter' masks

A Whole Foods Market store is seen in Santa Monica, California, U.S. March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Jan 23 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit by three former Whole Foods employees who said they had been illegally fired for opposing the upscale grocery chain's alleged discriminatory discipline of workers who wore "Black Lives Matter" masks.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston found little evidence to refute Whole Foods' "legitimate business explanations" for strictly enforcing the dress code, and no significant evidence it had targeted the plaintiffs by firing them in the summer of 2020.

"The evidence demonstrates only that Whole Foods did not strenuously enforce the dress code policy until mid-2020, and that when it increased enforcement, it did so uniformly," Burroughs wrote in a 28-page decision.

"This holding is not about the importance of the Black Lives Matter message, the value of plaintiffs' advocacy in wearing the masks, the valor of their speaking out against what they perceived to be discrimination in their workplace, or the quality of Whole Foods' decision-making," the judge added.

Whole Foods, part of Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), has long maintained that its adopted its dress code--which also covered visible slogans, logos and ads--to foster a welcoming, safe and inclusive shopping environment.

Burroughs said the former employees Haley Evans, Savannah Kinzer and Christopher Michno could not claim protection from retaliation under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Whole Foods said it was pleased with the lawsuit's dismissal.

In June, the federal appeals court in Boston upheld Burroughs' February 2021 dismissal of a proposed class action over the dress code, though on somewhat different legal grounds than hers.

The Black Lives Matter movement started after police killed several Black people in the United States.

A video showing the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a police officer sparked nationwide protests about racial injustice.

Whole Foods had employed Evans in a Marlton, New Jersey, store, while Kinzer worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Michno in Berkeley, California.

The case is Kinzer et al v Whole Foods Market Inc, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 20-11358.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bradley Perrett

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