SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A San Diego woman has filed a lawsuit against a man who started a GoFundMe to raise money for a Starbucks barista last summer.
It started when Amber Gilles visited a San Diego Starbucks in June. A barista asked her to put a mask on, then she took a photo of him and posted it on Facebook with a caption saying “Meet lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask. Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption.”
That post had hundreds of thousands of interactions, with many people commenting in support of Lenin.
A stranger in Orange County, Matt Cowan, said he wanted to donate a few dollars to the barista in tip money, so he started a GoFundMe with a screenshot of Gilles' post. That GoFundMe also quickly gained traction online, ultimately raising $100,000 for Lenin. Cowan gave every penny to Lenin, who said he’s going to use that money to pay for college and follow his passion for dance.
That fundraiser is the basis of a new lawsuit Gilles has filed against Cowan.
Gilles’ attorney, Michael Harrington, said the GoFundMe page is a misappropriation of Gilles’ name and likeness and that it’s defamatory. Harrington also said there was the commercial utilization of Gilles’ name and likeness without her permission.
“There is an invasion of privacy aspect here as well and it’s defamatory and money was raised by him,” said Harrington.
The suit names Cowan and his company as defendants. Cowan said he had braced for a lawsuit because Gilles said she planned to press charges last summer, but the biggest shock was seeing his company named.
“At no point or time did I use any of my company resources or connections through my organization to garner any support for this campaign,” said Cowan.
Cowan said the only images of Gilles he used on the GoFundMe page were screenshots of the public post that Gilles had created, which anybody could access.
“Everything was done in a philanthropic sense and I used publicly available information to populate my GoFundMe,” said Cowan.
The suit also states Gilles lost work because of the incident. Harrington said she had been part of a group that gave work opportunities, but that company dropped Gilles when the incident happened. He said she’s also received death threats because of the incident, so they’re seeking compensation for lost wages and damage.
“I don’t see anything in her post that would warrant her being villainized, and her life being threatened over this,” said Harrington.
Cowan said he should not be penalized for the actions other people take.
“She made a public Facebook post that went viral and I’m not responsible for whatever anybody else sends to her,” said Cowan.
In an interview last summer, Gilles told ABC 10News she had a medical exemption that prevented her from wearing a mask.
She provided ABC 10News with two documents to prove her medical exemption. One is a pelvic exam from 2015 with results that say “probable exophytic fibroid arising from the anterior wall of the uterus measuring 2.9 cm size.” and “simple 2.5 cm left ovarian cyst.” A second piece of paper is a handwritten note with letterhead from a San Diego chiropractor who she asked not be named. The handwritten note reads “Amber has underlying breath conditions that prevent her from wearing a mask or any type of facial covering whatsoever. Please contact me if have any questions.”
She also said she has mask-acne issues and doesn’t believe masks work.
Harrington said it doesn’t matter if she should have worn a mask or not, she should not be treated the way she's been treated, and it all stems from the GoFundMe.
“I believe that dialogue can happen in a civil manner without someone getting death threats at the end of the day,” said Harrington.
When asked last summer if she has an apology or message to the public, Gilles said, “No absolutely not. I feel like I need the apology. I’ve been discriminated against, I’m the one who’s sick.”
When Cowan was asked if he would do anything differently, he said no. Ultimately, his creation of the GoFundMe benefited Lenin.