United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
S. Cass, Esq., John D. Doran, Jr., Esq., Jillian S.
Folger-Hartwell, Esq., Alexsa Marino, Esq.
N. Laplante, United States District Judge.
Karen Cooper and Linda Dykeman allege that the Greater
Providence Young Men's Christian Association and their
former supervisor, Steven O'Donnell, subjected them to a
hostile work environment based on their gender and retaliated
against them when they complained of this discrimination, in
violation of federal and state law. The defendants move for
summary judgment on all claims. This court has subject-matter
jurisdiction over the case under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331
(federal question) and 1367 (supplemental jurisdiction).
are genuine, material disputes in the record about whether
the plaintiffs faced harassment based on their gender,
whether the plaintiffs faced harassment so severe or
pervasive that it altered the conditions of their employment,
whether the plaintiffs suffered retaliatory adverse action
after they complained of discrimination, and whether the
plaintiffs were constructively discharged. The
defendants' motion for summary judgment is thus denied,
except as to defamation claims which the plaintiffs no longer
Applicable legal standard
judgment is appropriate where “the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is “genuine” if it
could reasonably be resolved in the non-moving party's
favor at trial, and “material” if it could affect
the outcome of the suit under applicable law. See
Cherkaoui v City of Quincy, 877 F.3d 14, 23-24 (1st Cir.
2017). In analyzing a summary judgment motion, the court
“views all facts and draws all reasonable inferences in
the light most favorable to the non-moving” parties.
Estrada v. Rhode Island, 594 F.3d 56, 62 (1st Cir.
2010). But the court “will disregard conclusory
allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported
speculation.” Cherkaoui, 877 F.3d at 24. It is thus
“well-settled that a judge must not engage in making
credibility determinations or weighing the evidence at the
summary judgment stage, ” but “it is equally
clear that judges cannot allow conjecture to substitute for
the evidence necessary to survive summary judgment.”
Town of Westport v. Monsanto Co., 877 F.3d 58, 66
(1st Cir. 2017).
relevant facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the
plaintiffs as required by Rule 56, are as follows:
Dykeman, O'Donnell, and Cooper begin work at the
GPYMCA hired Dykeman as Chief Financial Officer in March
2016. Gayle Corrigan, at the time a member of the GPYMCA
board, recruited Dykeman for the position. Corrigan had
recruited Dykeman for another position with a different
organization several years earlier, and the two were members
of the same social club. A few months later, Corrigan became
the chair of the GPYMCA board. As CFO, Dykeman was a member
of the GPYMCA's Senior Leadership Team
(“SLT”), which also included Chief Operating
Officer Carl Brown and Vice President of Human Resources Rann
October 31, 2016, the GPYMCA hired Steven O'Donnell as
Chief Executive Officer. At that time, the GPYMCA was in
significant financial distress. The selection process
included interviews with the members of the SLT. The SLT did
not rank O'Donnell as the top candidate after an initial
interview, but was asked to reevaluate him by the
GPYMCA's search group. The second interview was more
favorable. After O'Donnell became CEO, the GPYMCA's
board grew from 13 members to 34 members, at least in part
through recruitment efforts by O'Donnell.
began working as the Chief Marketing and Development Officer
for the GPYMCA on December 5, 2016. Her hiring process
included interviews with the members of the SLT and Corrigan.
Unlike Dykeman, Cooper first met Board Chair Corrigan in this
interview process. The SLT ranked Cooper as the top candidate
for the position. CEO O'Donnell agreed that Cooper should
be hired. Human Resources VP Hannagan extended an offer to
Cooper. O'Donnell later admonished Hannagan for doing so,
advising that it was his place, not Hannagan's, to hire
for leadership positions. O'Donnell announced
Cooper's hiring internally with an email describing her
as a “standout” candidate and “fantastic
fit” for the organization's needs. The defendants
argue that these statements mean O'Donnell could not have
harbored any discriminatory animus toward Cooper, but at
summary judgment the court cannot draw that inference, and
must instead draw all inferences in favor of the plaintiffs.
joined the SLT. All of the SLT members reported directly to
CEO O'Donnell. Cooper and Dykeman worked with other
female employees beyond the SLT, including Tempie Thompson,
Neta Taylor, Christine Spagnoli, and Cathy Azzoli,
O'Donnell's executive assistant. Internal sources
evaluated both Cooper's and Dykeman's job performance
time O'Donnell became CEO, the SLT held regular weekly
meetings. Dykeman viewed SLT meetings as necessary for the
functioning of the organization. On one occasion, shortly
after Cooper was hired, the members of the SLT had an
impromptu meeting and O'Donnell happened upon it.
O'Donnell appeared upset and instructed the SLT to no
longer meet without him.
Working relationship between Dykeman and
December 8, 2016, the Finance Committee of the GPYMCA board
met at the GPYMCA headquarters. Dykeman presented the annual
budget to the committee, and CEO O'Donnell was scheduled
to attend. O'Donnell did not attend, for reasons
O'Donnell and Dykeman dispute. After the meeting
concluded, Dykeman found that O'Donnell was in his
office, and asked why he failed to attend the meeting
downstairs. Dykeman testified that O'Donnell lied to her
and told her that he did not know about it. O'Donnell was
polishing his shoes, and asked Dykeman for an article of
clothing from her bag to use in shining his shoes. Dykeman
had to leave to attend a holiday party at her social club.
O'Donnell told her to go have some drinks and relax. In
Dykeman's observation, O'Donnell did not miss
meetings with the male members of the SLT, and she is not
aware of O'Donnell asking anyone else for clothing with
which to shine his shoes.
following day, Dykeman entered CEO O'Donnell's office
to provide some documents when Cooper was present.
O'Donnell brought up the prior evening's discussion
and repeatedly referenced Dykeman having drinks to cope.
Dykeman repeatedly asked O'Donnell if they could discuss
the issue at another time, but O'Donnell continued to
discuss it in front of the newly hired Cooper.
O'Donnell repeatedly asked Dykeman for budget documents
and posed questions to her, but did not allow Dykeman to
explain the GPYMCA budget and debt to him in person, as she
thought necessary. Dykeman felt that O'Donnell similarly
asked repetitive questions without allowing her to provide
full explanations and face-to-face interactions on several
other financial issues. According to Dykeman, COO Brown and
Human Resources VP Hannagan were permitted more frequent and
substantive meetings with O'Donnell. The defendants
contend that all of the SLT members were subject to the same
restrictions, but at summary judgment the court must view all
facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
The record evidence does not foreclose Dykeman's
occasion, CEO O'Donnell became belligerent towards
Dykeman, in front of Brown and Hannagan, for discussing
GPYMCA financials with Board Chair Corrigan. Corrigan reports
that in meetings O'Donnell called Dykeman the “grim
reaper” and referred to her being inebriated. When
Corrigan raised the shoe-shining incident with O'Donnell,
he responded that Dykeman was too tightly wound and just
needed a few drinks. O'Donnell also called Corrigan to
complain about Dykeman. At meetings, Corrigan observed that
O'Donnell's body language expressed disinterest when
Dykeman spoke. Board and executive committee member Adam
Phillips observed that Dykeman appeared uncomfortable around
O'Donnell, and Dykeman advised Corrigan that she felt
uncomfortable sharing a car with O'Donnell.
Saturday, January 7, 2017, CEO O'Donnell emailed Dykeman
seeking information after Cooper had closed her computer for
the day. He resent the email on Sunday. On Monday, he called
Dykeman and complained that she was not providing him the
required information. Dykeman responded that his requests did
not involve her department, but O'Donnell stated that he
did not care and expected Dykeman to provide the information
and be more responsive. O'Donnell complained of the
incident to Board Chair Corrigan, and suggested that he
wanted to get rid of Dykeman.
Working relationship between Cooper and
role as Chief Marketing and Development Officer included
functioning as the public face of the organization, in
partnership with CEO O'Donnell. Shortly after hiring,
O'Donnell required that all donor solicitations go
through him. Cooper complained that she was being excluded
and not allowed to do her job. Cooper testified that her male
colleagues were allowed to remain involved in their areas of
responsibility and provide feedback to O'Donnell, while
O'Donnell restricted her from attending meetings or
acting without his explicit approval.
Cooper's account, she was only allowed to attend two
external meetings where CEO O'Donnell discussed
fundraising. O'Donnell specifically invited her to the
first meeting, with a proposed donor. During the meeting,
O'Donnell stated that the population served by the GPYMCA
doesn't look like O'Donnell or the donor, but instead
looks like Cooper. Cooper interpreted this as a reference to
her being a woman of color. Cooper only attended the second
meeting because she was included on the email chain relevant
to it, and Cooper learned from Azzoli, O'Donnell's
assistant, that O'Donnell had inquired into why Cooper
had been present. Otherwise, according to Cooper,
O'Donnell did not invite her to donor meetings but would
brag to her about the meetings he attended.
O'Donnell and Cooper did not have planned meetings with
agendas, and did not discuss fundraising style or strategy at
impromptu meetings. Cooper reported to Human Resources VP
Hannagan that she was frustrated with O'Donnell and felt
that she was not being allowed to perform her job. In
meetings with Corrigan and Phillips, O'Donnell referred
to Cooper as a “know-it-all” and “busy
body.” The defendants argue that tensions between
O'Donnell and Cooper arose from differences in
fundraising strategy and personality conflict. But, at this
summary judgment stage, the court is obligated to view the
facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of Cooper.
and CEO O'Donnell discussed hiring a short-term grant
writer. She told him that she knew a good candidate who she
had worked with prior, and interpreted O'Donnell's
response as encouragement to proceed. Cooper and Dykeman
interviewed the candidate and reviewed the proposed contract,
and Cooper hired the grant writer. After a meeting on January
5th, 2017, where the grant writer was mentioned,
O'Donnell called Cooper and, by her account, unleashed a
tirade against her for hiring the grant writer without his
explicit consent. Cooper testified that she was afraid of
O'Donnell and apologized to him to stop him from yelling
and screaming at her.
Conflict between Corrigan and O'Donnell
Chair Corrigan testified that she informally received
complaints about CEO O'Donnell from several female GPYMCA
employees and that O'Donnell made comments in meetings
regarding non-employees that she perceived as sexist.
Corrigan described a conversation in early January 2017 with
Cooper, Dykeman, executive assistant Azzoli, and GPYMCA
employee Christine Spagnoli in which they discussed issues
with O'Donnell. Corrigan did not receive similar
complaints from Brown or Hannagan. After the conversation,
Corrigan arranged a telephone call with O'Donnell and
Phillips. On this call, the idea arose of creating a chief of
staff position as an intermediary between O'Donnell and
the staff, and someone proposed Corrigan for this role.
O'Donnell and Corrigan dispute which of them initiated
both proposals, each claiming the other conceived of them. At
summary judgment, the court must view the facts and draw all
reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiffs.
January 9, 2017, CEO O'Donnell presented the possibility
of Board Chair Corrigan as a chief of staff to the SLT. The
SLT was not supportive. Corrigan spoke to Dykeman the
following evening and represented that O'Donnell had
convinced her to become chief of staff over her reservations.
The next morning, O'Donnell instructed Dykeman not to
speak to the other members of the SLT about her conversation
with Corrigan, but Dykeman had already told others.
O'Donnell was upset with Dykeman. Dykeman made a verbal
complaint regarding O'Donnell to Hannagan.
January 12, 2017, at 2:30 PM, Cooper texted CEO O'Donnell
to share what she believed to be good news regarding a
fundraising request she planned to submit. O'Donnell
replied expressing concern that all requests for money should
carry his signature and saying that he would call Cooper.
Cooper clarified that it was an online application.
O'Donnell left a voice mail and Cooper said she would
call O'Donnell back in a bit. Cooper became occupied with
other business. O'Donnell sent his assistant, Azzoli, to
ask Cooper to call O'Donnell. Cooper was further delayed
and had an after-work ...