Two former employees of the YMCA of Greater Providence (Rhode Island) have filed a lawsuit against the YMCA and its CEO for sex discrimination and retaliation, according to a lawsuit filed on Dec. 29, 2017, in the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island.
The two former employees, Karen Cooper and Linda Dykeman, allege in the suit that the Greater Providence YMCA CEO Steven O'Donnell subjected them to sex discrimination, violated civil rights and fair labor practices, and retaliated against them. The lawsuit seeks actual damages, damages for emotional distress and punitive damages. The plaintiffs are asking for a trial by jury.
Dykeman had served as the YMCA's chief financial officer, and Cooper had served as the chief development and marketing officer until both left in February 2017.
O'Donnell was named the Y's CEO in October 2016 after retiring in September 2016 as superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, a position he held for more than five years. He had worked for the state police for more than 30 years total. For six years during the 1990s, he worked undercover to infiltrate the Patriarca Mafia family in New England.
In November 2016, 19 new members joined the YMCA board, which has 32 total members. Many of the 19 new board members credited O'Donnell for convincing them to join the board, according to a Nov. 11, 2016, article in the Providence Journal. Six of the 32 board members are women, including the current chair and vice chair. Two of those women joined the board with the group of 19 in November 2016.
On Jan. 19, 2017, Dykeman and Cooper filed a complaint with human resources against O'Donnell and asked that he be investigated for harassment. The suit includes examples of behavior that the women said led to their complaint, including (but not limited to) chastising, scolding, belittling and demeaning the women; texting them at all hours and demanding immediate responses; interfering with the performance of their essential job functions so that "they could not perform even minor tasks without his input and tacit approval"; removing executive authorities and duties from the women for things such as hiring support staff, conducting meetings with their staff or with board members or engaging in discussions with other executives without his approval and presence at the meetings; prohibiting them from attending meetings that were essential to their jobs; and scheduling meetings with them and canceling those meetings or not showing up for them. The suit alleges that O'Donnell did not treat the men on staff in the same manner.
The suit also alleges that when Dykeman complained to O'Donnell that he did not attend a scheduled financial meeting, he demanded that she give him an article of her clothing so that he could "shine his shoes" with it.
The suit alleges that after the women filed the complaint with human resources, O'Donnell tried to suspend the women, but the board, led by chairperson Gayle Corrigan, denied the suspensions and hired an investigator to look into the allegations. The suit also alleges that the board warned O'Donnell not to retaliate against the women or anyone else.
On Jan. 24, 2017, board chairperson Corrigan was removed from her position in a 32-0 vote of the board after a confidential meeting called by O'Donnell, the suit alleges. The YMCA employee handbook says that harassment issues involving senior management should be directed to the board chairperson, according to the lawsuit filing.
After Corrigan's removal, Jamia McDonald, who was one of the 19 people elected to the board in November 2016, was named as the new board chairperson. On Jan. 24, 2017, she halted the investigation into O'Donnell, according to the suit.
The lawsuit also claims that O'Donnell conducted his own investigation into the allegations against himself, and he reported to the board in his CEO Report that his investigation determined that the allegations were unfounded.
In February 2017, Dykeman and Cooper left the Y and filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission complaining of bullying and intimidation by O'Donnell.
In March 2017, Corrigan filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission alleging that O'Donnell had retaliated against her for her support of an investigation into the complaints against him by Dykeman and Cooper.
In a statement McDonald sent to NBC 10 in March 2017, McDonald alleged that Corrigan was voted off the board for "providing false information as well as abusing her authority for personal gain."
John Martin, the attorney for Corrigan, denied to NBC 10 the allegations by McDonald about Corrigan.
The YMCA posted this response to the lawsuit by Cooper and Dykeman on its Twitter and Facebook pages:
This complaint is not new, it was originally filed with the Human Rights Commission in early 2017 and withdrawn by the complainants. By doing so it gave them the opportunity to file a complaint in court as they have chosen to do. GPYMCA Attorney state, "Ms. Dykeman's and Ms. Cooper's ('Plaintiffs') claims of gender-based discrimination, harassment, unlawful retaliation, and defamation are entirely baseless. Plaintiffs make sweeping and inflammatory allegations, but in reality their claims are based on nothing more than disagreements with CEO Steven O'Donnell's management decisions – all wholly related to Mr. O'Donnell performing the difficult task of managing the YMCA at a crucial juncture in its' [sic] business affairs. All of Mr. O'Donnell's management decisions of which Ms. Dykeman and Ms. Cooper complain, were related to the legitimate conduct of YMCA business. As a result of their complaints about Mr. O'Donnell's management decisions, Ms. Dykeman and Ms. Cooper lost no pay, no benefits, were not demoted or disciplined, and their jobs remained exactly the same in scope, responsibilities, and duties throughout their entire employment. Ultimately, Ms. Dykeman and Ms. Cooper voluntarily resigned their employment.
The only neutral party to hear Ms. Dykeman's and Ms. Cooper's claims, the referee who presided over an unemployment benefits hearing at the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, denied them benefits. The referee observed, "Many of the incidents described as being harassing and creating a hostile work environment are more aptly described as differences in opinion and management style." He further held that "claimants provided neither credible testimony, witnesses or evidence to support the allegations. There is no evidence the positions became unsuitable or that the claimants had no reasonable alternative but to place themselves in a position of total unemployment.
We expect Plaintiffs' federal suit will be seen in the same light as their claim for unemployment benefits and ultimately be dismissed.
More details about the lawsuit are included in this article in the Providence Journal.