Discrimination charges levied against general counsel

UH panel reverses findings of independent investigation

Michelle Norton

Staff Writer

Dennis Duffy, general counsel for the University of Houston System and recently appointed head of the federal Office of Compliance in Washington, D.C., will undergo management training following alleged workplace discrimination.

Investigation into the complaints from three female members of Duffy's staff began March 11 when Electra Yourke, former director of the UH affirmative action office, contacted the law office of Dillard, McElvaney and Kovach seeking an investigation into possible discrimination claims.

Legal Secretary for the General Counsel Carolyn Williams, Assistant General Counsel Susan Septimus and Business Administrator for the General Counsel Sue Yerby filed claims that Duffy discriminated against them on the bases of age, gender and race.

Interviews of the three complainants were scheduled following a meeting between Yourke, UH System Chancellor/UH President Arthur K. Smith and an investigator.

The three alleged Duffy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1964, which protect against discrimination and "a hostile or abusive working environment."

Duffy maintained that his rights were violated and argued that he was not informed his staff was to be interviewed.

He also denied that he discriminated on the basis of race, gender or age and stated that his management style cannot, and should not, be confused with discrimination.

Duffy is charged with pointing out his staff's deficiencies and changing the office's managerial style into an intolerable one. However, he said doing so was simply good business management.

Several conclusions based on the results of the investigation, however, indicate otherwise. In fact, the investigation found morale in the office "so low it cannot be measured."

One witness described the working situation in Duffy's office thus: "An unpleasant boss is not unimaginable. Dennis is unimaginable."

McElvaney's report indicated that two complaints - gender discrimination from Septimus and hostile work environment from all three women - were justified.

Septimus filed her first complaint March 18, alleging that Duffy passed her up for the position of assistant general counsel in favor of Brian Nelson, a friend of Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Randy Harris.

The position, which requires experience in resolving employment and labor issues, was allegedly given to Nelson based on his "managerial" qualifications, which were not a listed requirement.

In addition, according to the report, Nelson would receive a salary of $88,000 per year, while the prior assistant general counsel received only $64,000 per year.

The report said Nelson applied for, and received authorization for, the higher salary although he had no experience in higher education law.

His salary is not only higher than Septimus', but also $11,000 higher than that of former Interim General Counsel Susan Wheeler, who had 12 years of experience in the office.

Complaints that Duffy created a hostile working environment included stories of his routinely threatening Yerby and co-workers with termination while pounding his fists at weekly meetings.

One allegation in the report described an incident following a meeting between Duffy and Septimus. After she left halfway through the meeting, reportedly feeling Duffy ignored her and treated her in a hostile manner, Duffy and Nelson followed Septimus to her office.

There, Duffy talked for two straight hours while pounding on the desk. Ultimately, according to the report, his actions reduced Septimus to tears.

Another witnessed incident mentioned in the report dealt with Duffy's referring to Lois Zamora, dean of the College of Humanities, Fine Arts and Communication, as "an uppity woman."

He was also described by witnesses as referring to Williams as "that woman."

Allegations McElvaney found to be unsupported included Duffy directing Septimus to perform secretarial tasks after he hired Nelson.

She contended that, when she sent Duffy an e-mail to remind him of her qualifications, he referred to her as an "old girlfriend" who was never satisfied no matter how much he told her he loved her.

Duffy's work environment also allegedly led to physical problems among staff. Yerby said that due to the stress of working with Duffy, she has suffered health problems including chest pains and high blood pressure.

Her allegations were not supported by McElvaney's findings.

Further concerns arising from the discrimination claims against Duffy involved his relationship with Yourke.

McElvaney's report said Duffy made a comment, "Jewish women are all like that," aimed at Yourke. As affirmative action director, Yourke had to report to Duffy although she initiated the investigation into his actions.

Duffy will be responsible for selecting the new affirmative action director in upcoming weeks.

He declined to discuss the allegations with the Cougar.

After receiving McElvaney's report, Smith named a three-person ad-hoc review panel to "give each respondent an opportunity to convey their feelings regarding the investigative process and to make recommendations as to viable solutions."

The members of the panel included Sybil Todd, vice president of institutional advancement, Elwyn Lee, vice president for student affairs, and Robert Herrington, assistant vice chancellor/vice president for Human Resources.

The panel, in a separate review of the situation, found every allegation against Duffy to be unsupported and recommended re-assignment for each complainant. It also recommended Duffy participate in management training.

The panel's call to re-assess the first investigation's findings has led to claims of administrative "whitewashing" of the charges. Opponents of the second report argue Smith created the panel in an attempt to desensitize the issue.

"Smith's hand-picked committee went over the report and conveniently endorsed McElvaney's findings that three of the discrimination complaints were not supported by the evidence," Tim Fleck wrote in the May 28 issue of the Houston Press.

Members of the panel declined to talk about the investigation with the Cougar.

Smith also declined to formally comment on the issue. "It is the University of Houston's policy not to comment specifically on any issues dealing with personnel matters, since people's lives and careers are involved," he said in a statement.

"While (the panel) found insufficient evidence to support any claims of job discrimination, the committee did make some recommendations to improve communication and management within the General Counsel's Office," Smith continued. "Those recommendations are being implemented."

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