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Ada County judge hears arguments on dismissing Big City Coffee lawsuit

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Big City Coffee got its first day in court and hopes for more. 

On Friday, attorneys representing Boise State University and Sarah Jo Fendley’s Linen District coffee shop went toe-to-toe in Fourth District Court for the first time over whether or not the coffee shop’s dispute with the university should proceed to a full trial. Boise State University filed a motion last fall requesting Judge Cynthia Yee-Wallace to dismiss Big City Coffee’s $10 million dollar suit against Boise State and several high-ranking administrators, alleging the school violated Fendley’s constitutional rights and the Idaho Consumer Protection Act in the fall of 2020

The October 2021 lawsuit, filed against the school and University President Marlene Tromp, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Leslie Webb, Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey, and Vice President for Equity Initiatives Francisco Salinas, claims Boise State forcibly closed Big City Coffee’s satellite location on campus less than two months after it opened due to the university’s “aggressive social justice agenda.”

A ruling on whether the case will move ahead is expected after February 11. 

BSU: Big City Coffee’s arguments falls short ‘over and over’

At the heart of this long-running dispute is Big City Coffee’s allegation the business was “forcibly removed” from Boise State’s campus due to Fendley’s support of law enforcement and her romantic relationship with former Boise Police Officer Kevin Holtry, who was shot in the line of duty and now uses a wheelchair. 

In her remarks, Boise State’s attorney Trudy Hanson Fouser said Big City Coffee’s allegation that the school mistreated her business due to her political beliefs is not supported by facts, even those provided by Fendley’s lawyer. Fouser said Boise State University and its foodservice vendor Aramark knowingly entered into an agreement with Big City Coffee knowing about Fendley’s open support of law enforcement and the ‘Thin Blue Line’ movement and a former conflict with a Boise State professor who tried to organize a boycott of the business. 

But, Fouser said the problem arose when Fendley asked for Boise State University to take a side with the business in opposition to a group of students who were criticizing the coffee shop’s affiliation with law enforcement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and protests against police brutality in 2020. Fouser said Boise State supports the “open exchange of ideas” and cannot infringe upon anyone’s right to free speech, regardless of if the school agrees or not. 

“Because there are no facts of university employee doing anything to infringe on her right to free speech, the plaintiff is using this complaint to build anger and possibly hate against the university,” Fouser said in her arguments. “This document might generate anger against a public university, but it falls short over and over as a legal document.”

What does Big City Coffee say?

Mike Roe, Fendley’s attorney, did not agree and pushed for the judge to allow the case to move ahead, go to the discovery phase and a full jury trial. 

In his arguments, he described an October 22, 2021 meeting between Fendley, Webb, and Estey to discuss the conflict between the coffee shop and the group of critical students as “an ambush” where school administrators had already made up their minds to end the contract and have Big City Coffee leave campus under student pressure. 

He said Boise State repeatedly asked Fendley to sign paperwork saying the end of their relationship was mutual, but Fendley refused because she believed she had been removed from campus against her will. 

“The defendants’ mistreatment of my clients can only be understood if one appreciates Boise State University’s aggressive social justice agenda and the individual institutional biases exhibited by these defendants,” Roe said. 

Yee-Wallace asked Roe a few questions during his arguments, including his assertion that Boise State violated Big City Coffee’s due process rights. She asked him what specific process the university should have followed with Big City Coffee because this could help guide her decision, but he didn’t provide a specific answer. 

“I don’t know how to answer the question,” Roe said. “…We were deprived of a property interest without due process.”

‘Low hanging fruit’

Right off the bat, Yee-Wallace tried to head some arguments off at the pass. 

She opened the hearing by noting to the two attorneys that she had reviewed all of the documents in detail and hoped to keep arguments shorter than the allotted two-hour time. One of the items she specifically noted was Boise State’s argument that the individuals named in the suit, Tromp, Webb, Estey, and Salinas could not be sued in their individual capacity because they worked for Boise State University, which is part of the state government and its employees cannot be sued individually.  

“I don’t think that room leaves much room for debate and that seems like a low-hanging fruit issue that is ripe for dismissal,” Yee-Wallace said. 

Roe discussed this topic in his remarks, arguing that all of the administrators were involved in the contract and were aware of the proceedings. He said comments Salinas made at a Black student association meeting about opposition to Big City Coffee on campus showed he “fomented the problem” on campus. Roe also said if the case goes to discovery, he will prove Tromp called Boise Mayor McLean “minutes” after the conclusion of the meeting Webb and Estey had with Fendley on October 22. 

“What happened here is you had the number two and number three ranking authorities calling a meeting,” Roe said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was a day after my client posted on social media (about the dispute).”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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