Wednesday, January 30, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 82


 
 









 

Testimony starts in Septimus trial

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 Duffy.

"What we're going to show is that the University of Houston does not tolerate dissent. UH labels complainers as disloyal. UH
would rather shoot the messenger than hear the message," said Andrew Golub, lead attorney for plaintiff Susan Septimus,
during his opening remarks.

By contrast, Assistant Texas Attorney General Donna Hamilton, representing the University and the UH System, said "this is a
case about expectations, not discrimination and not retaliation. It's about a manager who had expectations and demands that
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 telling her
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 general
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 installed
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 OGC job
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, which Golub
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, Golub said.

After reluctantly accepting the "downgraded" contracts administration position and discovering it had become little more than
"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 office
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 to
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 my
reluctance to perform secretarial duties for you."

Of the incident in which Septimus was confronted in her office by Duffy and Nelson, Hamilton said it had been in response to
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, "no one
was yelling and screaming," Hamilton said.

She further said the contracts administration job which Septimus accepted had always had the same duties and
responsibilities.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore told the four-woman, three-man jury that testimony should wrap up this week.
 
 
 

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