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Cooper v. The Greater Providence Young Men's Christian Association

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

November 8, 2019

Karen Cooper and Linda Dykeman
The Greater Providence Young Men's Christian Association and Steven G. O'Donnell

          David S. Cass, Esq., John D. Doran, Jr., Esq., Jillian S. Folger-Hartwell, Esq., Alexsa Marino, Esq.


          Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs 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).

         There 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 press.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         Summary 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).

         II. Background

         The relevant facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs as required by Rule 56, are as follows:

         A. Dykeman, O'Donnell, and Cooper begin work at the GPYMCA

         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 Hannagan.

         On 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.

         Cooper 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.

         Cooper 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 positively.

         At the 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.

         B. Working relationship between Dykeman and O'Donnell

         On 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.

         The 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.

         CEO 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 interpretation.

         On one 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.

         On 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.

         C. Working relationship between Cooper and O'Donnell

         Cooper's 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.

         By 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.

         CEO 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.

         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.

         D. Conflict between Corrigan and O'Donnell

         Board 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.

         On 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.

         On 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 ...

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