SAN DIEGO — Last summer, Matt Cowan started a GoFundMe to support a Starbucks barista who was shamed online by a customer whom he chose not to serve because she wasn't wearing a mask. Now, Cowan is being sued by the maskless customer, who claims the campaign was "defamatory" and used her image and likeness without her permission.
It started when Amber Gilles visited a San Diego Starbucks in June. When a barista asked her to put a mask on, she took a photo of him and posted it on Facebook.
“Meet lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask," Gilles wrote on Facebook. "Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption.”
That post had hundreds of thousands of interactions, with many commenting in support of Lenin.
Cowan, who didn't know Lenin, said he wanted to donate a few dollars to the barista in tip money, so he started a GoFundMe. The campaign 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.
But that fundraiser is the basis of a new lawsuit Gilles has filed against Cowan.
Because Cowan used the photo Gilles posted to Facebook, her attorney, Michael Harrington, said the GoFundMe page is a defamatory misappropriation of Gilles’ name and likeness. Harrington also said the GoFundMe featured 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,” Harrington said.
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 to him was seeing his company named as a defendant.
“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,” Cowan said.
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,” Cowan said.
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 went viral. 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,” Harrington said.
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,” Cowan said.
In an interview last summer, Gilles said she had a medical exemption that prevented her from wearing a mask.
She provided 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.” The second piece of paper is a handwritten note with letterhead from a San Diego chiropractor who asked not to be named.
"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,” the note reads.
Gilles also said in the interview that she has mask-acne issues and doesn’t believe masks work in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Harrington said it doesn’t matter if she should have worn a mask or not — he says 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,” Harrington said.
During an interview last summer, reporters asked Gilles if she has an apology or message to the public.
“No absolutely not. I feel like I need the apology. I’ve been discriminated against. I’m the one who’s sick,” she said.
When Cowan was asked if he would do anything differently, he said no. Ultimately, his creation of the GoFundMe benefited Lenin.
Cowan recently set up a new GoFundMe to help pay for his legal fees.
This story was originally published by Leah Pezzetti on KGTV in San Diego.