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Big City Coffee files tort for $10 million against Boise State over closed coffee shop

A Boise coffee shop, bakery, and restaurant asked for a big payout from Boise State University after its satellite location on campus closed last fall.

On March 24, Big City Coffee LLC and owner Sarah Jo Fendley filed a tort claim for $10 million against the university to compensate them for damages. Fendley claims Boise State “slandered and libeled” her business, interfered with her contract with food vendor Aramark, defrauded Big City Coffee by misrepresenting “certain information” the company relied on, and violated Fendley’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

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Boise State University spokesman Mike Sharp declined to answer questions about the claim Thursday.

“Boise State University has received a Notice of Tort Claim from Big City Coffee,” he wrote. “The university does not comment on potential or pending litigation.”

A tort claim isn’t a lawsuit, but it can precede one. Tort claims are a written demand to recover money damages from a governmental entity, its employees and/or its representatives alleging misconduct. Tort law requires that the agency involved must respond within three months. If the agency does not respond to or rejects the claim then the claimant may sue the agency.

Michael Roe, an attorney with Givens Pursley, represents Big City Coffee.

Conflict centers around Thin Blue Line

Last fall, some students raised concerns about the local shop opening a location in the Albertsons Library on campus. Fendley is a long-time supporter of first responders and prominently displays the Thin Blue Line flag at her Grove Street location. She is also engaged to Boise Police Officer Kevin Holtry, who is paralyzed after being shot five times on duty in 2016.

Students, including some involved with the student government’s Associated Students of Boise State University Inclusive Excellence Student Council, opposed the store because of the owner’s connection with the Thin Blue Line. The symbol has come to mean different things to different groups. Police officers and their supporters see it as a symbol honoring the service and sacrifice of officers. But the modified US flag with a blue stripe has also been displayed against movements that protest police brutality, including Black Lives Matter.

It’s unknown exactly how many students were speaking out against the coffee shop or were in support. The bulk of the controversy started when a student posted about Big City Coffee and the Thin Blue Line on Snapchat, which Fendley shared and responded to on social media. Fendley regularly posted about the controversy and Boise State, amplifying opposition to her business on the coffee shop’s Instagram during the height of the controversy last fall.

In the claim, Fendley said opposition to Big City Coffee from the Inclusive Excellence Student Council mounted for months before her contract ended. She said if she was aware of the opposition, Big City Coffee would not have borrowed the funds necessary to set up the second location and worked to get it up and running.

The back-and-forth between Big City and Boise State joins a growing number of skirmishes involving the school and outside groups. Conservative Idaho Legislators and the libertarian think tank Idaho Freedom Foundation criticized the school for its diversity, equity, and inclusion programming they say is contrary to the Gem State’s values. This month, legislators approved a roughly $400,000 cut from Boise State’s budget in an effort to end “social justice” initiatives without undercutting the school’s main mission. But, more conservative legislators hoped for deeper cuts. Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, referenced the Big City dispute on the Senate floor during debate.

One meeting, two stories

Big City Coffee’s BSU location closed soon after an October 2020 meeting between university officials and Fendley that resulted in the cancellation of her contract with Boise State’s food vendor Aramark. But, accounts differ on what transpired in the private meeting. Neither the school or Fendley has produced a recording of the conversation.

Fendley’s tort claim described the meeting as an “ambush,” where officials had already decided they would terminate her contract due to the pressure of the student activists and the school’s “extreme social justice agenda.” The claim said Fendley asked university officials if they would issue a statement supporting Big City Coffee against the criticism from students, but she was denied. Then, Fendley says Boise State’s Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey told Fendley “I think it’s best we part ways.”

Boise State declined to comment this week, but in the fall the school issued a statement saying they did not ask Big City Coffee to leave campus or compromise Fendley’s right to free speech. Lauren Griswold, BSU’s associate vice president for communications, marketing and creative strategy, told the Idaho Press Boise State administrators had “several conversations” with Fendley in an attempt to facilitate a dialogue between the students and Big City Coffee.

“Unfortunately they didn’t show any interest in taking that path and having that dialogue,” Griswold said in October.

Big City claims City of Boise involved

After the claim described the meeting, it went on to describe a series of phone calls about the issue between Boise State Leadership, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee. The claim did not provide proof the calls occurred or how Fendley would know about the contents of private conversations.

The claim alleges Boise State President Marlene Tromp called McLean “within minutes” to silence Big City Coffee. According to Fendley, McLean then called Lee who “summoned” Fendley and Holtry, who works at the department, to a meeting in his office on Oct. 23. The claim then alleges Tromp called Lee weeks later and “shared her dismay at the public outcry over Big City Coffee’s mistreatment, complaining that the university risked losing financial and political support due to the controversy.”

McLean’s spokesman Seth Ogilvie did not respond to a phone call or a text message asking how BoiseDev should submit questions on this matter. BPD spokeswoman Haley Williams confirmed Lee talked with Holtry and Fendley, but did not elaborate much on what they discussed or what he talked with McLean about.

“Chief Lee does talk with the Mayor often about topical news events and what the potential impact may be to public safety,” Williams said. “Chief Lee also reached to Holtry as an employee to check in on him and his significant other on a personal level.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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