Testimony starts in Septimus
By Ken Fountain
Senior Staff Writer
Testimony began Tuesday in the federal
civil lawsuit of a former UH assistant general counsel who alleges she
was retaliated against and "constructively discharged" after she made claims
of gender discrimination against her then-boss, UH General Counsel Dennis
"What we're going to show is that the University
of Houston does not tolerate dissent. UH labels complainers as disloyal.
would rather shoot the messenger than
hear the message," said Andrew Golub, lead attorney for plaintiff Susan
during his opening remarks.
By contrast, Assistant Texas Attorney General
Donna Hamilton, representing the University and the UH System, said "this
case about expectations, not discrimination
and not retaliation. It's about a manager who had expectations and demands
people do their jobs. It's about changes,
and adjusting to changes."
During his opening statement, Golub said
Duffy and Septimus initially had a good working relationship, with Duffy
that she was "a keeper." That all changed,
however, when on Jan. 9, 1998, Septimus, who had handled UH business and
health-related legal matters, told Duffy
she was interested in being promoted to an associate general counsel's
job, he said.
Duffy had already that day interviewed
Brian Nelson, a man much younger than Septimus, for a posted associate
counsel position. Soon after, Duffy's
attitude toward Septimus took a dramatic turn for the worse, Golub said.
The souring relationship culminated in
what Golub described as a scene in which Duffy, accompanied by the newly
Nelson, "screamed at her for two solid
hours while she sobbed uncontrollably."
Following Septimus' internal complaint
and an outside investigation (which found that Duffy had discriminated
against her on
the basis of her gender), Golub said that
Smith presented Septimus with only two options. One was to remain in her
under Duffy (who had the full support
of Smith and the UHS Board of Regents).
The other choice was transfer to a "newly
redefined" position as Director of Contracts Administration. That job,
said had been originally designed for
a lawyer, would now not entail the practice of law. Smith also told her
she would have
to sign a release waiving her rights under
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but later withdrew this stipulation,
After reluctantly accepting the "downgraded"
contracts administration position and discovering it had become little
"secretarial," Septimus was forced to
resign in January 2000, Golub said.
Countering Golub's remarks, Hamilton said
Smith hired Duffy in 1997 with the express purpose of turning around an
which for years had been staffed by lawyers
who had little or no supervision, and which had lost respect among the
University and UH System community.
"Dr. Smith instructed Mr. Duffy to do something
about the quality of that shop," Hamilton said. "Mr. Duffy wanted people
come to work on time, dress professionally
in the workplace, return phone calls to clients."
Hamilton said that the day when Septimus
asked to be considered for the promotion was the day "everything went south."
Less than a week later, Hamilton said,
Septimus sent Duffy an e-mail in which she wrote that she wanted to "express
reluctance to perform secretarial duties
Of the incident in which Septimus was confronted
in her office by Duffy and Nelson, Hamilton said it had been in response
Septimus walking out of a meeting with
Duffy because she had become "frustrated" with what she perceived as his
inattention. The confrontation in Septimus'
office lasted 20 minutes, not two hours, and, while Septimus was crying,
was yelling and screaming," Hamilton said.
She further said the contracts administration
job which Septimus accepted had always had the same duties and
U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore told
the four-woman, three-man jury that testimony should wrap up this week.