A federal jury orders Bellevue businessman James Hebert to pay $650,000 for retaliating against an employee who could not speak English.

Share story

A federal jury has awarded $650,000 to a Bulgarian janitor who was fired by a Bellevue businessman after being told he had to learn English or lose his job.

Yordan Petrov sued James D. Hebert and his wife, former King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, for discrimination, retaliation and withheld wages after he was summarily fired from Hebert Research after being ordered to take an English-as-a-second-language class after he’d been working for the company for five years without complaint.

The judgment, entered earlier this month after a four-day jury trial before U.S. District Judge James Robart in August, included $300,000 for state and federal retaliation claims, and $350,000 in punitive damages against Hebert and the company. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on discrimination claims alleged by Petrov.

“This is a very large judgment, particularly in a case involving a low-wage employee,” said Petrov’s attorney, Elizabeth Hanley.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

According to his lawsuit, Petrov — a former Bulgarian police officer — was hired by Hebert’s wife, Sullivan, the company’s chief operating officer, in 2006. With the exception of a brief layoff because of the economy in 2009, he worked without incident and received good reviews, according to court documents.

He was paid $12.50 an hour and, according to court filings, was a “stellar” employee and “very pleasant” to work with, despite his limited English.

Hanley said Petrov had come to the United States to work and help his daughter attend the University of Washington. After he was fired, he was unable to find another job and had to return to Bulgaria.

According to trial briefs, Petrov was supervised by Sullivan, who often communicated with him through a data analyst at the company who spoke Russian, which Petrov also spoke. However, Sullivan cut back her work at the company in August 2011, and once Hebert, the president and CEO, began supervising Petrov his relationship with the company changed, the documents say.

Hebert at one point asked Petrov if he was a Muslim — he was not, according to court documents — and “began treating Mr. Petrov in a disrespectful and humiliating manner that was different than the way he treated other employees who were not Bulgarian or otherwise displayed Slavic characteristics,” Hanley wrote.

At one point, Hebert sent Petrov home and told him he was going to cut back his hours, although Sullivan countermanded that order. When Petrov returned to work the next week, Hebert ordered him to paint the Hebert Research company building — which housed up to 100 employees — using only a paintbrush and a ladder, according to documents.

When Petrov complained that the job was dangerous, “Mr. Hebert responded by tearing down the paperwork regarding discrimination and wage-and-hour law” posted in the company’s breakroom, the lawsuit claimed.

According court documents, Hebert then ordered Petrov to increase his workload to 10 hours a day but failed to pay him for the additional time.

The lawsuit alleges Hebert accused Petrov of stealing a rug from the business — an accusation Hebert later withdrew, according to his court filings — however, the company deducted the cost of the rug from his pay.

During a confrontation over the alleged theft, Petrov said Hebert grabbed him and pushed him against a door.

Documents filed by Hebert’s lawyer, Michelle Peterson, acknowledged that deduction was a mistake and said the money was paid back.

In late September 2011, Hebert ordered Petrov to enroll in an English-as-a- second-language class “if he wanted to keep his job,” although his sparse English had not been an issue up to that point, Petrov’s attorney wrote. When he was unable to enroll in a class because it was full, he was fired.

Hebert has asked the court to reconsider the judgment and has indicated that he plans to appeal. He also says in court filings that he does not have the assets to pay the judgment.

Peterson, his lawyer, declined to comment.

Hebert, 65, founded Hebert Research in 1978 and at one point it employed more than 100 people and provided market research for some of the area’s largest companies. According to his biography, he has worked as an adjunct professor at both the University of Washington and Seattle University.

In 2013, Hebert was criminally charged in Kittitas County with attempting to run down and assault a juvenile all-terrain vehicle rider who wandered onto his property. He pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct, and was placed on probation, according to the Kittitas County Superior Court docket.