After suing Home Depot for slurs, Jewish man is fired

Julien Zerbib says he was taunted regularly at the Home Depot store where he worked, called "Jewboy" and subjected to other anti-Semitic slurs. Despite a string of commendations, Zerbib, after lodging complaints, found himself out of a job.

The barrage of insults began soon after the veteran 49-year-old salesman started working at Colma's Home Depot in March 1996, according to a civil suit filed this week in San Mateo County Superior Court.

Since Zerbib's in-laws are Holocaust survivors, "he takes this stuff more personally than even your average American Jewish person," says Zerbib's attorney, San Francisco civil rights specialist Louis Highman.

"This has really upset him, and he's still pretty upset."

Zerbib's suit is expected to gain strength from Friday's settlement in a federal court. The retail giant agreed to pay $65 million to settle a class-action sex discrimination claim made by 25,000 female employees in the company's Western division. That settlement also resolves similar suits filed in other parts of the country.

That settlement also "certainly can't hurt [Zerbib's] case," says Oakland lawyer David Borgen, whose firm represented the women.

Zerbib's suit names his former supervisor, Terri Simmons; Simmons' supervisor, Mike Kinzie; and the Atlanta-based retail giant with slander, libel, breach of contract, breach of faith and violating the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Home Depot Inc. operates a chain of warehouse-style home-improvement retail stores in 40 states and three Canadian provinces.

One corporate official admits that the outlet at 2 Colma Blvd. is "one of the worst stores in the district" for its treatment of minority employees. Co-worker John Ponzini allegedly said he believed all Jews should be killed, and that the Nazis erred in not building more gas chambers and furnaces.

"I know for a fact John talked about Julien behind his back," says former co-worker Wayne Walter Jr., who filed a suit of his own against the company. "He would imitate him and make fun of him."

Zerbib was told that Arthur Black, now the company's president and chief operating officer, and Bernard Marcus, now corporate chair, wept when they first learned of Zerbib's complaints. Still, the company failed to investigate or take corrective action, the suit claims.

"Their famous saying is, `Change doesn't happen overnight,'" Walter says.

Zerbib's lawyer, Highman, says that while workplace discrimination cases abound, Zerbib's charges still surprised him.

"This is not supposed to happen in the workplace," he says. "I get outraged by stuff like this."

Simmons finally fired Ponzini in December, after he allegedly called Zerbib a "Jew bastard" and other obscene names when Zerbib was on the phone with a client. Then she fired Zerbib.

The official cause of Zerbib's firing was disorderly conduct. However, attorneys noted that store officials had once denied Zerbib's request to transfer to another store since he was deemed too valuable for the Colma store to lose. Walter was also fired. Zerbib, who lives in San Francisco, has not secured another post.

Calls to the company's human resources division in Atlanta were not returned. The company fought both Zerbib's and Walter's unemployment claims. Lawyers offered each man $1,000 in a "nuisance settlement."

Simmons has since left the Colma store and now manages a Home Depot in Milpitas. Kinzie runs the company's San Carlos store.

According to Value Line analysts, the public company has led the industry in sales and profitability for more than 11 years, netting $5.7 billion in the year's first quarter alone.

The company's West Coast division has been the target of at least two other Bay Area discrimination suits. In July, a federal court jury in Oakland returned a verdict of $1.6 million in punitive damages against the company in a case involving sexual discrimination and retaliation.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.