Suit Alleges Whistleblower Retaliation After Reporting Fiscal Improprieties and Racist Comments



Helene Sullivan, a long-time UC Davis professional employee who received the “Chancellor’s Citation of Excellence” in 2007, has sued the Regents of the University of California for being forced out of her job after she reported fiscal improprieties, as well as racist comments and discriminatory actions by staff members against the Director of the Center for Human Services, Karen Howard.

Ms. Howard was a female of African-American descent who had been recruited to UC Davis following a nationwide search.  After reporting the racist comments and other wrongdoings to UC Davis Office of Extension Dean Dennis Pendleton, Ms. Sullivan suffered retaliation. This included being ostracized and harassed by her managers, and being denied a promised promotion and subsequent annual raises. She also experienced removal of her professional job duties, with assignment of menial clerical duties — or no duties at all.

Ms. Sullivan has sued, alleging whistleblower retaliation and harassment, and retaliation for reporting racial discrimination and harassment against a UC Davis employee.  The matter is pending in the Yolo Superior Court.

In October of 2011, UC Davis hired Karen Howard as the Director of the Center for Human Services. While Ms. Sullivan did not work directly for Ms. Howard, she interacted with her on a daily basis. Shortly after her arrival, Ms. Sullivan “observed that Howard had become the target of racial bias and hostility by some of the managers and employees at DC Davis Extension.”

She observed that many of the center’s managers “had embarked on a campaign of sabotage designed to undermine Howard’s authority and harm her reputation at the University and in the community. This campaign included withholding information from Howard, providing her with half-truths and misleading information, and maligning Howard’s character behind her back in the office and in the field with UC Davis Extension clients and instructors.”

In addition, Ms. Sullivan alleges that the program director “intentionally solicited negative information about and criticism of Howard from others for the purpose of causing Howard injury.” Based on her observations, Ms. Sullivan “understood this conduct to be directed at Howard because of Howard’s race.”

In February 2012, Ms. Sullivan met with officials at UC Davis “about the derogatory references about and mistreatment and targeting of Howard because of her race. (Ms. Sullivan) objected to the discriminatory treatment of Howard and expected him to take actions to stop such improper conduct.”

In addition, she also reported “certain fiscal and administrative improprieties she had discovered with respect to programs being administered by the Center. These included (l) misuse of public funds; (2) conflicts of interest in awarding compensation to instructors and consultants who were friends of the managers approving the funds; (3) consultants being awarded funds for contrived projects for which no services were rendered or products developed; (4) misuse of university vehicles; and (5) favoritism and nepotism in staff assignments and instructor selections.”

Following this meeting, Ms. Sullivan’s treatment by her superiors began to change as they “began to micromanage and interfere with (Ms. Sullivan’s) assignments and work product, to isolate (her), and to discourage support staff from assisting or trusting (her).”

“Workload distribution among the Program Representatives became disproportionate and unequally distributed. Soon, (she) routinely needed to work overtime to complete her workload. (Ms. Sullivan’s) requests that assignments be redistributed were ignored. (She) was also required to provide weekly schedules in advance, when other Program Representatives were not, and was prohibited from meeting alone with her clients.”

At this point, her supervisors began to “ostracize” her, refusing to communicate in person or via email. She alleges that her supervisors would route responses through support staff and “interfered with and disrupted” her work and business relationships “by taking over communications and tasks previously assigned” to Ms. Sullivan.

In November 2011, prior to her disclosures, her supervisors had “initiated and expressed support for the reclassification” of her position, which would have constituted a promotion with an increase in salary and a change from non-exempt to exempt status with an accompanying increase in autonomy. Following the disclosure in February 2012, the advocacy stalled and she was never reclassified and never received the promotion.

On May 30, 2012, Ms. Sullivan, pursuant to the University of California, Davis, Whistleblower Protection Policy, filed a formal retaliation complaint with Wendi Delmendo, who is the designated official assigned to receive such complaints. That complaint was accompanied by an email disclosing harassing, threatening, and intimidating conduct by various supervisors in retaliation for the disclosures.

By January 2013, Ms. Sullivan was placed on medical leave by her physician due to the severe stress and anxiety caused by the unlawful actions of her supervisors. Numerous avenues that she had attempted to rectify the problem failed.

In May 2013, she was allowed to return to work with no more than 20 hours per week. However, upon return from medical leave, she continued to suffer mistreatment and adverse actions.

In February 2014, her physician would lift her work restrictions and she resumed full-time work. However, “After (Ms. Sullivan) was cleared for full-time work, the mistreatment continued. Even in the absence of any work restrictions, (her supervisor) continued to refuse to permit (her) to perform tasks and duties within Plaintiffs Program Representative II job description that (she) had previously routinely and successfully performed.”

Ms. Sullivan in her suit alleges that “no other UCD Extension staff member in her job classification was subjected to the scrutiny and restrictions imposed upon (her), and that, in fact, staff members with considerably less seniority and experience were permitted to perform the duties Plaintiff once performed with considerable autonomy and flexibility.”

She continues that her “material job responsibilities were significantly diminished, and her future promotion opportunities were thereby severely reduced.”

Finally, by September 2014, she believed that the situation and working conditions were “so intolerable that a reasonable person in (Ms. Sullivan’s) position would have had no reasonable alternative except to resign,” which she in fact did in September 2014.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

41 thoughts on “Suit Alleges Whistleblower Retaliation After Reporting Fiscal Improprieties and Racist Comments”

  1. Davis Progressive

    the karen howard case is one i wish the vanguard could have covered.  pretty clear cut example of racism at uc davis and our community.  i believe either she or someone who knew spoke out a few years ago at breaking the silence.

    1. Alan Miller

      Ms. Sullivan “observed that Howard had become the target of racial bias and hostility by some of the managers and employees at DC Davis Extension.”

      I see racism therefore it is racism.

        1. Alan Miller

          “because i know the backstory, but i can’t put it here without outing myself.”

          . . .  and I believe you because I agree with all your opinions and respect your anonymous-ness #cough# #cough# #gasp# #choke#

  2. TrueBlueDevil

    Is there an article concerning the Karen Howard case / situation?

    Sullivan claims she knew from her “observations” there was racism, and she understood it was because of her race, but she never gives us the smoking gun or illustrative examples.

    Contrast that with the very recent revelations about racist and / or inflammatory texts sent by San Francisco Police Department officers that should result in a few quickly losing their jobs. And if what was communicated is true, I’d find a way to review all SFPD texts for 3-4-5 years to purge them of any remaining bigots. But I fear the lawyers and police officers union will fight to protect their “privacy” rights, even though they may have been using SFPD equipment.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I don’t recall writing an article, although I had met with a number of people on the Karen Howard case. If I have time today, I’ll find the comment on it at Breaking the silence.

      “Sullivan claims she knew from her “observations” there was racism, and she understood it was because of her race, but she never gives us the smoking gun or illustrative examples.”

      Remember it’s a complaint in the law suit, so we’ll have to see what discovery they have bolstering that claim.

  3. Frankly

    Innocent until proven guilty.  In this day and age, my first impression with these types of cases is that the plaintiff/complainer has a personality disorder that makes her hypersensitive and difficult to work with.

    I have experienced this many times in my management career.  That employee that just cannot seem to get along with anyone.  Complaining about the smallest of things.  Then her peers steer clear of her and it causes even more resentment.  Management cannot promote here because nobody likes working with her.  Eventually she is just an angry, frustrated powder keg waiting for the right thing to explode on.

    In most cases a person with these tendencies needs cognitive behavior therapy to learn how to get along with others.


    1. TrueBlueDevil

      You sound like a human resources guru. When I read the story, I figured many were avoiding her as she  may have gotten a reputation as a “negative nancy” or “negative ned”. It does happen.

      I personally know of a case where a college employee (not UCD, more than 10 years ago) appeared ready to drop the racism charge, she was ending creepy email references to her fellow employees on racism and unconscious racism and told them they might want to read up on the topic. The person in question had 2 masters degrees, and turned in a wonderful kind of white paper as part of her interview process. Once hired, she often had problems completing even the most basic tasks. She then blew her yearly budget in two weeks. Then, she’d turn in an insightful analysis. Some of the individuals involved came to the conclusion she was submitting the work of others as her own. There were two distinctly different voices on paper. They had to balance a precarious situation, give her very basic tasks, they’d give her 3 months to accomplish something that might take an hour to complete, and then wait and document.

      I know one of the people who was the recipient of these email messages and she is the kindest, most helpful, thoughtful, hard working woman you’d ever meet. She was so fearful that she went to the college HR department to ask how she could protect herself (she was a long term employee).

      Before it blew up, she found a job at another college, so they knew they dodged a bullet.

      The kicker is that this woman I know, a big liberal, now prefers to forget this whole scenario and figures it was an isolated incident. She also prefers to forget that highly qualified male applicants were passed over so that the first female, minimally experienced, applicant in a certain position could be hired. Both situations have been swept under the rug.

      1. Frankly

        Interesting story.  The labor laws are there for a good reason, but they are exploited by employees having behavior issues.  That is not the surprise nor the main problem.  The surprise and the main problem are the absurdity of response always taking the immediate word of the “victim”.  In these matters the accuser can lie and the accused still gets put through the ringer.  I think Alan Miller makes a valid point that false claims of racism are in fact racist and potentially an instance of hate.  I think false claims of hostile work environment, or sexual harassment, should have the tables turned on the accuser if the accusation turns out to be false.

        1. TrueBlueDevil


          [moderator] deleted, off topic

          I believe we’ve also let people who make false claims about racism off the hook with no punishment.

        2. Alan Miller

          “I think Alan Miller makes a valid point that false claims of racism are in fact racist and potentially an instance of hate.”

          Alan Miller prefers people not say what they think Alan Miller says in their words and not his, changing Alan Miller’s meaning.

          My point was that the claims (and indeed many incidents in the Davis community) may or may not be racist, and people choose whether they are or not are far-too-often based on the observer’s politics.  The only people who are sane, in my mind, are those capable of holding open the possibility of yes or no until the facts are in, and accepting that we may never know.

          Except that S in OK.  THAT was racism ugly.

        3. Frankly

          Sorry about that Alan Miller.  I agree that I should not quote Alan Miller unless I am 100% accurate in that quote.

          The problem I see is the material harm done to the accused even if the claims turn out to be false.  And in most cases the lying or mistaken accuser ends up with little to zero consequences.

          At least Mike Nifong was disbarred.  But nothing happened to Crystal Magnum for that case.  Although later she was found guilty of killing her boyfriend.

  4. Alan Miller

    “These included (l) misuse of public funds; (2) conflicts of interest in awarding compensation to instructors and consultants who were friends of the managers approving the funds; (3) consultants being awarded funds for contrived projects for which no services were rendered or products developed; (4) misuse of university vehicles; and (5) favoritism and nepotism in staff assignments and instructor selections.”

    Otherwise known as another day at the office in most government agencies.

    1. Miwok

      Mr, Miller, exactly on point.

      Because this lady was black she thought it was racism, but my experience at UC Davis for the same things, yet white, reminds me exactly what I went through. The University tried to fire me several times because of the same things, and only the documentation I had kept the lawyers on track. Until they sent some lawyers from Oakland, the Office of the President, I was guilty of all charges in spite of Internal Audit vetting everything I alleged with proof.

      All this article does is hope to tell people what happens in institutions like this. They put their kids and friends in places and the result is lots of waste fraud and abuse. The Whistleblower program is a joke. I am sorry I never had my day in court, because no law firm in Sacramento would sue them.

      This lady at least had a witness willing to lose her job to document it. No one I worked with would even tell the truth under oath.

  5. Tia Will


    Wow ! Talk about a contradiction all wrapped up and presented neatly in one post. You cite “innocent until proven guilty” and then proceed to “convict’ the employee of having a “personality disorder” ! Now, if you know more about this specific case than I, just say so and I will be happy to retract my comments. Otherwise, you have made a far greater generalization about this employee based on your personal experience and bias than the accuser, at least presumably with some basis in fact.

      1. Tia Will


        I don’t know.  I said “in my experience.”

        I believe that Ms. Sullivan was describing her actual experiences apparently based on direct observation of what she considered racist behaviors. To me this would likely trump speculation from someone who was not present at they time of the activity in question. Why would you automatically cast doubt on her direct observation without having any of the facts described ? This is a good example of the default to our “knee jerk” reactions to an accusation of racism. You haven’t even bothered to consider the possibility that her observations could have been factually correct. To me, the automatic denial mode is every bit as “knee jerk” as is the automatic outrage mode described in Anon’s posted article.

        1. Frankly

          For first job out of college working for large company resulted in an early promotion to VP where I started to attend the executive meetings.  Prior to that I was middle management constantly harassed by HR for endless sexual harassment, sensitivity, diversity, and hostile work environment “awareness training”.

          In the first executive meeting I attended, the HR VP was having fun with another male VP known to be attractive and well-built about both taking off their tops/shirts.   At another meeting there was banter between an Asian VP and black VP joking about their racial stereotypes.

          What is my point?

          That in most private sector companies the hypersensitive don’t rise to the top.  In fact hypersensitivity is a clear sign of personal capability deficiencies. Leaders can handle and cope with edge and conflict.  They can dish it out as well as take it.

          But there is always a percentage of lower-level employees that, for what ever reason, are afflicted with hypersensitivity.  And since trial lawyers have succeeded in moving legislation to implement more and more rules that they can harvest with law suits against deep pocket companies, the companies reliably have implement risk-avoidance rules that attempt to prevent claims from the hypersensitive.

          We have “progressed”  way beyond a point of reason for how far we go to persecute what are really just normal human interactions.  And it has consequences.  With the power they derive from the extreme rules, the hypersensitive become a great risk to be avoided.  And this then leads to their personal spiral downward as the hypersensitive note they are avoided and passed up for promotion.  They grow even more frustrated and passively aggressive in their pursuit of retribution.  It is a personally destructive cycle for them as once they are identified the company managers and HR work to minimize risk as a first priority.

          But then what about the real problems that the laws were originally intended to address?

          Applying reason we would need to assess the materiality of the offenses.  Sexual harassment and hostile work environment rules stemmed from offenses high in materiality.   For example, bosses withholding raises and promotions for sex, or employees bullying other employees.  When the story is “he said something that was offensive”… basically just breaking the most conservative interpretation of politically correct speech codes, then it appears to me that the issue is really hypersensitivity.

          That is the story here, hence my comment.

          My recommendation for any employee with hypersensitivity tendencies is to work on developing better coping skills and stronger interpersonal relationship skills.   And THEN they will be better able to assess true actionable offenses that if they pursue will not damage their reputation that can impact their chances for advancement.

        2. Davis Progressive

          hypersensitivity is in the eye of the beholder.  my guess is you probably are talking about conduct from 30 years ago.  when i first started out with my law practice in the early 80s, things were very different.  i think a lot has changed for the better however.

        3. Alan Miller

          Frank Lee,

          Good and reasoned post.  I have observed similar, having been an employee in private firms, worked for the University, ran my own business, done my own consulting, ran a small non-profit, and worked for the state.

          But I guess it all happened 30 years ago . . . so what do we know?  #sigh#

  6. Tia Will


    In response to your posted article on the other thread.

    I agree with many of the authors points. One portion of her article especially resonated for me.

    Such conversions happen in conversations–not yelling, not screaming, but in a sincere desire to listen and be heard. Our knee-jerk reactions to the subject of  race reveal our great discomfort with real conversation regarding how this sad legacy continues to affect us all. There is a time for marching and there is a time for conversation. This was a time for conversation and intervention. By expelling these students, OU made it easier for them to hide and to avoid the real mid-term exam of their lives.”

    I believe that this is true whether our “knee jerk reaction” happens to be outrage which she equates with hypocrisy, or whether our “knee jerk reaction” happens to be denial  or claiming that someone is “playing the race card”. What we too often forget is that our way is not the only valid way of seeing the world . Someone else’s position may be equally as legitimate as our own…..just different. The real value that I see in holding these conversations in our community is to hear the differing views with an open mind understanding that someone else’s perspective can be just as valid as our own.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      I found the article interesting, although I didn’t agree with everything. I find it interesting that it seems like quite a few of these supposedly racist or actual racist events / graffiti / smears come from this group she highlights, “pre-adults” was her term. And it seems like a lot of them are young men. We had some sayings about young men like this I can’t post here.

      Sadly, I also saw where an SAE fraternity member was assaulted at another college campus in supposed retaliation, and there has been a shooter arrested in the Ferguson ambush case.

      I don’t get her characterizations of a supposed all-white shielded world, I don’t know where she gets that. Iowa? She then described minorities as only being people who carry our bags, clean our houses and prepare our food. This sounds like the antebellum South, not America 2015. I clean and carry my own bags, please. She then somehow thinks these imaginary people then transmit these racist beliefs secretly to their children, who then go on to become these pre-adult racists. This seemed half baked. I think her earlier thoughts rang more true, young stupid immature men, fueled by booze and insecurities (my addition), and the odds of anyone speaking up and condemning the ringleader are minimal. Just like the odds of one pre-adult refusing a joint or a bong  today are probably pretty low given the peer pressure.

    2. Alan Miller

      “The real value that I see in holding these conversations in our community is to hear the differing views with an open mind understanding that someone else’s perspective can be just as valid as our own.”

      . . . . . or to confirm our original belief that they are full of crap.

  7. Tia Will


    That in most private sector companies the hypersensitive don’t rise to the top.  In fact hypersensitivity is a clear sign of personal capability deficiencies. Leaders can handle and cope with edge and conflict.  They can dish it out as well as take it.”

    You seem to ascribe moral virtue to “leaders” just by the fact that they have somehow risen to a leadership position. I can guarantee to you from my personal experience that this is not necessarily the case. I have personally been “hit on” by department chairs who were themselves married and knew that I was married. I have seen harassment in the work place perpetrated by those at the top. And yes, when this occurred I have “blown the whistle” with variable results. What I see lacking in your anecdotes is how well this kind of “boys will be boys” banter would have been handled had the jibes been coming not from a peer, but rather from someone lower on the corporate totem pole or from a woman. I simply do not believe that “leaders” become more virtuous by reaching a societal pinnacle. One has to look no further than Nixon or Clinton to know that this is certainly not the case and yet you continue to make this misattribution of virtue or capability to position. Being a “leader” does not make one any more or less human than being the individual who mops the floor when the conference room is empty.

    1. Frankly

      You seem to ascribe moral virtue to “leaders” just by the fact that they have somehow risen to a leadership position.

      You macerated your understanding of my post.  I did no such ascribing.

      My general point was/is that hypersensitivity can be at the root of complaints about the behavior of others.  And that people that rise higher in most organizations demonstrate strong coping skills for dealing with interpersonal relationship issues.   But I absolutely agree that just having strong coping skills does not make a person more virtuous than someone having weaker coping skills.  There are a number of skills that are essential for good leadership.  However, I do think that it would be difficult to be a good leader while being afflicted with hypersensitivity.  Being known as hypersensitive would generally result in being a bit ostracized from peers and passed over for promotion because of natural avoidance of risk.

      To understand this just think about how you desire to be free of risk of fear from harassment.   The reverse would be true for people desiring to be free of risk of fear from accusations of harassment.

      Being “hit on” is not really a big deal for a lot of people that have ascended to a position of power.  For them it is easy enough to say something like “I wouldn’t consider it even if you and I were the last two people left on earth” and then both laugh and go have lunch.  Now if the hits keep coming and they don’t stop then it is harassment.

      A friend of mine told me a story about working with an attorney to draft his company HR policy manual and one of the sections said that there would be no alcohol on premise and that any drinking during the work day would not be allowed.  My friend said “that won’t work, the partners have wine and scotch in their office for client meetings, and sales employees are required to have drinks with clients at lunch and dinner meetings if the clients prefer.”  The attorney said “that is the same at our office, but we like to recommend the language for the ‘little problem people’ that like to sue the company when they get upset.”

      The point here is that many of the rules are for the highly sensitive complainers, but they will be thought of as the “little problem people” and will generally not rise in the organization.

      And this isn’t a “boys club” thing.  I have worked for as many women as men in my career, and they have all been pretty much equal in demonstrating balanced sensitivity.

  8. Alan Miller

    Transferring my off-topic comment #1 of (2) to this, a more appropriate venue:

    The author in the link (from Anon) referred to above states:

    rather than confronting, challenging, AND teaching; a college community merely washed their hands and decided that their students were beyond redemption.

    I have often challenged things labelled racist by the Vanguard — and the Davis-racism-of-the-week column in the Enterprise — as actually or necessary being racist.

    What I saw in that video of the singing on the bus was about the most racist verbal thing I have seen in recent decades — far short of someone being dragged behind a pickup track for their race maybe — but as far as verbal-only, this could not be spun as anything short of pure verbal racism in its ugliest form.

    No forgiveness, no teachable moment.  What the college did bringing down the hammer was fully justified.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      I  have no problem with bringing down the hammer either. That frat seems to have a sordid history in a lot of places, and fraternities nationwide will be on alert. No slap on the wrist time.

    2. Miwok

      Alan, the point you have about confronting, challenging teaching is something they missed in the 80’s. When they were changing the face of UC Davis, and I was going to interviews “as a favor” to management who had no intention of hiring a White Male, they insisted that people just hide their racist attitudes, not deal with them.

      Now that this policy has been in the system for 30 years and some of these people have kids around working in the same place, and they don’t hold back.

  9. Alan Miller

    Transferring my off-topic comment #2 of (2) to this, a more appropriate venue:

    Sit these kids down in front of the people that serve them, and ask these kids to repeat their racist song

    The idea itself of sitting them down with “black people” who work for them and sing the song is ok IF the people want to participate.  I would still drop the hammer on them as the college and expel them; not mutually exclusive.  I don’t understand the thinking that all these “possible” racist incidents in Davis must be so concerning and dealt with harshly, but when a blatant, ugly act of outright racism occurs, then the school can’t severely punish the offenders.

    I suppose it’s up to the offended race, not “us”, but if they were singing, “Let’s drive the Jewish kikes into the sea”, I would be quite fine with the punishment being expulsion, and if I were their Jewish cook (“latkes again, Alan? awwwww!”), I wouldn’t want to sit around while they sang me the song and made fake apologies in an attempt not to be expelled.

    As for the house mother, she was singing along to a rap song that contained a healthy sprinkling of the word n—-r, not to the racist chant (unless I missed another tape of her).  That is quite a bit more forgive-able, since she was probably liquored up and just singing along prompted so they could have a “funny” tape (in their minds), not singing a pre-practiced song with references to lynching.  AND, that brings up the whole thing of, if some blacks have “taken back” the word “n—-r” and use it amongst themselves, but whites still can’t use it, “can” “whites” sing along to rap lyrics with the word n—-r?

    I don’t know the answer!  I DO know I wouldn’t try it while riding the light rail in Sacramento.

  10. TrueBlueDevil

    I wonder if there were actual things said that prove this alleged bias, or is this hypersensitivity combined with a fishing expedition (i.e., via the discovery process).

    1. Davis Progressive

      karen howard settled with the university on her lawsuit.  it’s amazing how you guys have zero facts and yet can spout off about alleged bias and hypersensitivity – the very definition of prejudice.

  11. Tia Will


    I DO know I wouldn’t try it while riding the light rail in Sacramento.”

    Come on Alan. Where is your sense of adventure ?  According to Frankly, if you are high enough functioning, you should be able to both take it and dish it out. Maybe the two of you could set up a traveling rap competition on the Sacramento light rail.  I’m sure it will play out well, and if not, we have some sensitive medical professionals  here in the neighborhood who do not seem to me to be have personal capability deficiencies ; )

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for