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Gender discrimination lawsuit against YMCA, O’Donnell moves forward

Providence
Steve O'Donnell_614963

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A federal judge will allow a gender discrimination lawsuit against the head of the Greater Providence YMCA to move toward trial.

In a 34-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph LaPlante denied a motion for summary judgment by the defendant, YMCA Chief Executive Officer Steven O’Donnell.

A summary judgment is a common procedural step before a case goes to trial in which a judge can dismiss a lawsuit after reviewing the facts and finding there is no issue as a matter of law.

LaPlante did rule in favor of O’Donnell on one part of the complaint, dismissing a defamation claim, but allowed the gender discrimination aspect of the case to move forward.

The suit was filed in December 2017 by former YMCA employees Linda Dykeman and Karen Cooper, who claim O’Donnell subjected them to gender-based bullying, mistreatment and harassment.

Dykeman was hired as the chief financial officer for the YMCA in March 2016, seven months before O’Donnell was tapped to run the nonprofit. O’Donnell hired Cooper in December 2016 as the chief marketing and development officer.

In the suit, Dykeman accuses O’Donnell of creating a hostile work environment and berating her in front of other employees.

O’Donnell is the former superintendent of the R.I. State Police and is an occasional law enforcement analyst for Eyewitness News.

Dyana Koelsch, a spokesperson for the Greater Providence YMCA, said in an email that evidence in a summary judgment review is always viewed in the light that is most favorable to the plaintiff, in this case Cooper and Dykeman.

“It is not until the case is presented to a jury that determinations can be made regarding credibility,” Koelsch said. “The YMCA and CEO Steven O’Donnell look forward to the opportunity to defend themselves against the false allegations brought by Linda Dykeman and Karen Cooper.” 

David Cass, the attorney for Dykeman and Cooper, said in an email, “the plaintiffs believe at this time that the decision speaks for itself and will not be providing comment on their pending case.”

In response to Dykeman and Cooper’s allegations of workplace harassment, the board of the YMCA hired an independent investigator to examine their complaints. The investigator found Cooper and Dykeman brought the complaints “in good faith,” but there was not enough evidence to support that O’Donnell had treated them differently because of their gender.

In their lawsuit, Cooper and Dwyer argue the independent investigator failed to interview a key witness, former board member Gayle Corrigan, who claimed O’Donnell worked to force off the board.

LaPlante, who is a federal judge in New Hampshire, was assigned the case because the chief judge for federal court in Providence, William Smith, is a board member of the YMCA.

In his ruling, LaPlante ruled while “genuine disputes of material fact remain as to the plaintiffs’ discrimination and retaliation claims,” a review of the facts showed there was enough evidence to allow a jury to decide the outcome.

LaPlante did not put much weight to the independent investigation because the investigators “did not have access to Corrigan’s account and other evidence,” and “other evidence could also reasonably implicate gender.”

No trial date has been scheduled yet.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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