Emory Ellis, who lives on the streets of Boston, just wanted breakfast.
"My appearance played a big part in what happened,"said Ellis. "When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a respectable person, I might not be shaved all the way nice, and have nice clothes on, but I do deserve respect."
But when he went to a Burger King on Tremont Street and tried to pay with a $10 bill, a clerk told him the money was counterfeit.
“He told me he wasn’t going to give it back and if I didn’t leave he was going to call the police,” said Ellis in his first interview about the incident.
Police showed up and Ellis was arrested.
The humiliating scene played out in front of a packed restaurant.
“It was definitely embarrassing,” said the 37-year-old. “Even to get cuffs put on me and escorted out while people are sitting there eating.”
His attorney has now filed a lawsuit against Burger King, and the franchisee, identified in court documents as Two Guys Foods.
The lawsuit claims discrimination and seeks nearly $1 million.
“A 37-year-old white man like me doesn’t deal with the same world that a 37-year-old black homeless man like Emory does,” said defense attorney Justin Drechsler.
In a statement, Burger King says “While we cannot comment on the specifics of any ongoing legal matters, we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The Franchisee, who independently owns and operates this Restaurant, is responsible for handling all legal matters regarding this location and ensuring proper employee training is in place.”
“All they’ve said is the franchisee is responsible, the franchisee is responsible, it’s like the door says Burger King, the awning says Burger King, the uniforms the employees wear say Burger King, the receipts say Burger King,” said Drechsler, who says the company has not shown any interest in a wider conversation concerning how people are treated.
The incident happened in 2015 but Drechsler says Ellis didn’t know who to turn to for help, and that’s what accounts for the delay in filing the lawsuit.
The arrest triggered a probation violation and that sent Ellis to jail.
He’d stay there for three months until prosecutors learned from the Secret Service that the $10 bill was real, and charges were dropped, according to court documents.
“I was trying to tell them that from the beginning,” said Ellis, who never got his cash back, never got an apology, and will never get back those three months he spent in custody.
“I missed out on Christmas with my kids,” said Ellis. “I have little ones, it’s kind of hard to explain to them why I’m being punished for something I didn’t do.”
Multiple attempts to reach Two Guys Foods have not been successful.