Former YMCA employees sue Providence CEO on harrassment claims

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) —  Two former YMCA of Greater Providence employees have filed a lawsuit against current CEO Steven O’Donnell, claiming he subjected them to gender-based bullying, mistreatment and harassment.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 29 in U.S. District Court by Linda Dykeman and Karen Cooper, alleges O’Donnell treated the two former employees “differently, more harshly and with less respect than the male executives.”

On one occasion, according to the lawsuit, Dykeman approached O’Donnell to complain that he had failed to attend a finance committee meeting. She claims O’Donnell responded, “by asking [her] to provide an article of her personal clothing so he could shine his shoes with it.”

The lawsuit says after the two women filed a written complaint with human resources last January, O’Donnell responded by attempting to suspend their employment, claiming the complaints, “were not made in good faith.”

Human resources did not approve the suspension and gave O’Donnell a written warning to not attempt to retaliate against the women.

The lawsuit claims O’Donnell did not heed that warning and scheduled a confidential meeting of the Board of Directors, during which the board voted to remove the chair. According to the lawsuit, the chair is the only person who can take harassment reports involving the CEO.

The lawsuit goes on to say the new chair terminated the independent investigation into their harassment claims, even though it was incomplete, claiming “it appears as though the investigation was terminated specifically in order to prevent the investigator from interviewing the former chair.”

The women also said in the lawsuit that O’Donnell would repeatedly brag about his history of and ability to “retaliate against his professional rivals.”

Attorney John Doran, who is representing O’Donnell, said the complaints are “entirely baseless,” and that they are mere disagreements between the women and O’Donnell.

Doran released the following statement on behalf of his client:

“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’ 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.”

Doran said they expect the lawsuit to be dismissed amidst the “false allegations as their claim for unemployment benefits.”

It should be noted, former R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell is a contributor to Eyewitness News as a law enforcement analyst.