The Extra Cost of Dairy-Free: Starbucks’ Surcharge Sparks Legal Heat

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Customers with Lactose Intolerance Challenge Starbucks Over Extra Charges for Milk Alternatives.

Starbucks consumers with a lactose allergy have slammed the company with a lawsuit alleging it illegally discriminated against them by charging more for alternative milks.

California residents Maria Bollinger, Dawn Miller and Shunda Smith filed the proposed class action against Starbucks Corporation on March 12 in a California federal court. They allege Starbucks violated the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California civil rights laws by slapping a surcharge on orders that contain non-dairy alternatives.

“Lactose intolerance is a disability under the ADA,” the plaintiffs say. 

“Starbucks charges customers with lactose intolerance and milk allergies an excessively high surcharge to substitute non-dairy alternatives in its drinks.”

Coffee-lovers charged more than 50 cents more per drink

The three plaintiffs say they all suffer from lactose intolerance, and that it is medically necessary for them to avoid consuming products that contain milk. 

When they went to their local Starbucks outlets, and requested to substitute milk for non-dairy alternatives – specifically soy, oat, coconut, or almond – they say they were charged an extra $0.50 - $0.80 surcharge, depending on the store’s location.

In 2023, the average price of a Starbucks crafted coffee drink was $3.25, they say, therefore the surcharge could be up to 40% of the average drink price. They also said they were charged the same surcharge no matter what alternative-milk they chose, with Starbucks not making any distinction between the costs of the alternatives.

“In fact, Starbucks created a separate, higher-priced menu, aimed at customers who cannot ingest milk,” they say.

The financial brew: Profiting from lactose intolerance?

According to the plaintiffs’ research, there is no material difference between the price of lactose-containing milks and the price of some non-dairy alternatives – especially considering Starbucks’ buying power. 

“Starbucks is the largest coffee chain in the world,” the trio argue. “Because of its size, Starbucks has the power to control the manufacturing costs for non-dairy alternatives.”  

“Upon information and belief, Starbucks has earned over $1 billion dollars in the United States as a result of its discriminatory and illegal levying of the Surcharge during the class period.”  

And while Starbucks offers several free options when it comes to the content of fat in the milk, or various options when it comes to caffeine content, or even sugar content, it doesn’t do the same when it comes to lactose-free alternatives, they say.

They say this is a major problem, as almost 30 million people in the United States have lactose intolerance by the age of 20. 

Lawsuit seeks to represent consumers nationwide

The trio are looking to represent anyone in the United States who suffers from lactose-intolerance and who bought coffee or tea-based drinks from a Starbucks in the past four years, and paid a surcharge for ordering a non-dairy milk alternative. 

They’re suing for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, California civil rights laws and for unjust enrichment. They are seeking certification of the class action, damages, fees, costs and a jury trial.

The plaintiffs and proposed class are represented by Trenton R. Kashima and Rachel L. Soffin of Milberg Coleman Bryson and Bogdan Enica and Keith L. Gibson of Keith Gibson Law P.C.

The Starbucks alternative milk class action lawsuit is Bollinger et al., v. Starbucks Corporation, Case No. 1:24-cv-00303-JLT-SKO in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of California. 

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