Tracey Holmes Donesky: From Collegiate Athlete to Effective Litigator

By H. K. Wilson 

Tracey Holmes Donesky has called Stinson LLP, a full-service Am Law 200 firm, her professional home for more than 20 years. An employment law litigator, she defends clients facing employment disputes of all types at the federal, state and administrative levels. Her practice focuses on matters affecting railroads and other transportation-related entities, oil and gas, manufacturing and retail entities. She also handles non-compete matters, as well as wage and hour claims and class actions, helping clients with classification determinations and Department of Labor audits. 

[Winning the 1996 Walter Byers NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship] was one of the most pivotal moments in my life. I will always be grateful for the opportunities it gave me.

Finding a Home in the Law

Donesky’s journey to partner in a national law firm, with attorneys who possess deep industry knowledge and experience across a range of industries, demonstrates both her grit and ingenuity — and is the foundation of her legal reputation today. 

Donesky grew up in Kirkland Lake, a small mining town in northern Ontario, Canada, where her parents were both teachers. Her father introduced her to golf at a young age, handing her a cut-down 7 iron to join him on the course. At 13, she started playing competitively, and by 18, her family had moved to London, Ontario, where she rose to number one in the junior golf rankings in her home province of Ontario and number four in Canada. 

She had by then heard of athletes attending college in the United States on athletic scholarships and dreamed of doing so herself, but figured it was a long shot. 

“It wasn’t like Canada was considered a hotbed for college golf recruits at the time,” she says with a smile. Nonetheless, she put together her own golf portfolio and sent it off to several dozen U.S. schools, with fingers crossed. 

“I never thought I would hear back from any of them,” she recalls. “But I was fortunate enough to receive a two thirds scholarship to play golf at the University of Kentucky.” 

Donesky knew, however, that if she wanted to stay in the U.S. and continue her education (particularly considering the exchange rate from Canadian to U.S. dollars), it was imperative that she perform well and earn a full scholarship. She excelled athletically and academically during her freshman year and attained a full scholarship by her sophomore year, which allowed her to remain at UK and finish her undergraduate degree. 

By senior year, Donesky’s interest in legal history had crystalized into a desire to attend a U.S. law school, but she faced yet another financial dilemma. Most financial aid was not available to foreigners, and her student visa did not permit her to work. She therefore arduously researched and entered a number of competitions for English papers and journal articles. “I managed to accumulate close to $10,000.” 

But it was not nearly enough. Academic scholarship opportunities were also limited for non-U.S. citizens, but there was one scholarship open to all student-athletes – the Walter Byers Post-Graduate Scholarship. Founded in 1988, the scholarship program recognizes the top male and female student-athlete in NCAA sports and provides an annual stipend to each recipient for post-graduate education. It is considered to be the NCAA’s highest academic award. 

Having maintained a 4.0 GPA and competitively played her four years of eligibility, Donesky applied. She was stunned to learn that she had been selected as one of three female finalists, and she was flown to St. Louis for interviews with the NCAA committee. She recalls being impressed by the other finalists. 

“They were both so talented,” she says. 

Donesky vividly remembers the moment the committee named her as the female award winner. “We were all six of us candidates (three male and three female finalists) standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for their decision. When they called my name as the winner, I remember thinking, I get to stay and go to law school. I just had a feeling of home here in the States. To this day, it remains one of the most pivotal moments in my life. I will always be grateful for the opportunities it gave me.” 

Donesky is the only golfer, male or female, to win the scholarship to date. 

Shortly after returning from St. Louis, Donesky found a yellow envelope addressed to her on the steps of her Victorian-style home. She recalls being puzzled by it, as it bore the White House seal but no return address. 

“I thought it was some kind of promotional mailer. I almost threw it out,” she says. She is glad she didn’t. The envelope contained a personal letter from then President Bill Clinton, congratulating her on being named the 1996 Walter Byers female student-athlete scholarship recipient. 

Donesky ultimately attended the University of Minnesota Law School beginning in 1997, after spending a year on practical training at the law firm of Greenbaum Doll & McDonald in Lexington, Kentucky. 

“I was able to get practical experience, and I still hold those partners in such high regard,” she says. 

Coincidentally, the male recipient of the 1996 Walter Byers Scholarship played football at St. John’s University and also selected Minnesota for his post-graduate study. He attended the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Interestingly, both made Minnesota their homes, and now, 25 years after winning the award, each practice their respective crafts in Minnesota. 

Making Her Professional Home at Stinson

Donesky first worked at Stinson (formerly Leonard Street and Deinard) as a summer associate during law school and was offered an associate position at the firm following graduation. However, she had applied for and obtained a two-year federal clerkship with Chief Judge John R. Tunheim. Showing its support for Donesky, Stinson agreed to hold her spot while she acquired this invaluable professional experience. 

“I was able to see so much litigation in practice with some of the best practitioners,” she says. “When I returned to Stinson to start my practice, I felt like I had such a leg up.” 

Donesky is grateful she landed at Stinson. “Ultimately, it was about the people. I knew these were individuals I wanted to spend my working hours and days with.” 

Donesky praised Byron Starns, a partner in the firm’s Minneapolis office who has practiced at Stinson for over 40 years. He took the time to speak to her about finding a place where she felt she could spend her career. “He said there is value in finding that home. Stinson has been a home for me. I have felt supported – both professionally and personally – throughout my career at Stinson. It means so much. As new associates begin at Stinson, I try to convey the same advice Byron gave me.” 

Stinson has demonstrated its support in many ways over the years, including providing Donesky with extended leave just months after starting at Stinson in 2002, when she and her husband had the opportunity to travel to Russia to adopt their daughter, Claire. The firm offered the same unconditional support when Donesky gave birth to their son, Evan, later that same year. 

“I was only a few months into my job and did not yet qualify for family leave, but the firm said, ‘Go.’ They supported me for the time I took with both of my children.” 

A Three-Pronged Employment Practice

During her 20-plus years with the firm, Donesky has developed a robust employment practice in three distinct areas of employer defense: (1) counseling and litigation related to discrimination and retaliation claims; (2) wage and hour; and (3) non-compete litigation. 

From her time as a summer associate, Donesky began working on matters for one of the firm’s long-standing transportation clients. “I began working on matters for them from the beginning of my career at the firm. Now, James Bertrand and I manage this client relationship, and over the years, my practice evolved with an emphasis on the transportation industry. Now, I am purposeful about engaging young associates so they can obtain good litigation experience. Learning to grow and nurture client relationships was pivotal to my career success, and I strive to provide that experience to others as well.” 

Within her transportation practice, one of Donesky’s niches is defending railroads against retaliation claims under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FSRA). “It is a two-page statute that has been a substantial part of my practice since 2009, with a lot of industry claims being brought under this statute.” 

Her defense of retaliation claims has resulted in several important appellate victories. In one instance, Donesky obtained a reversal of a plaintiff-favorable decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a Class I railroad, wherein the Eighth Circuit ruled that the lower court committed reversible error by applying the improper legal standard under the FRSA. In another appellate victory, she obtained the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ affirmance of the District Court’s summary judgment in defense of a Class I railroad’s dismissal of an employee who pursued claims of reverse-gender discrimination and FRSA retaliation. Donesky also recently prevailed on a federal district court matter where the court for the first time applied equitable doctrines to preclude a FRSA plaintiff’s opt-out to federal court. 

“I am particularly proud of these outcomes because they made a difference in the development of the law,” she says. Her practice has evolved across industries, as more employers across different industries face these types of claims. “The FRSA statute is one of over a dozen similarly structured whistleblower statutes (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act being one of them) enforced by OSHA, and much of the law applies analogously. When a claim arises under any one of these statutes, we are prepared to handle it.” 

With regard to Donesky’s wage and hour practice, she helped to obtain a notable appellate decision from the Eighth Circuit in a matter involving pizza delivery drivers, which remains precedent. Donesky is also a 12-year member of the Wage and Hour Defense Institute (WHDI), a national network of recognized practitioners in wage and hour litigation with local knowledge covering all 13 federal circuits. Donesky recently completed a three-year term serving as its chair. 

Developing the Next Chapter

As she was approaching 50, Donesky began contemplating the next chapter of her legal career. Donesky believes that her two decades of counseling clients on the full spectrum of employment issues will enable her to mediate a wide variety of employment disputes. She also speaks with admiration of Ellen Sampson, who served as a legal pioneer and female mentor to Donesky and other female attorneys. 

“Ellen was a female mentor to me,” she says. “She started a mediation practice later in her career, and I am following her example.” 

Donesky began her path to becoming certified as a mediator in early 2020 with an intense week-long certification course. COVID caused some delays, but Donesky is now providing mediation services to the Hennepin County Court on a pro bono basis and integrating mediation into her practice. 

Sampson likes her chances. “Tracey has a tremendous work ethic. She’s also a great problem-solver, and she will make an effective mediator.” 

Finding Satisfaction in Life’s Biggest Choices

Donesky has recently resumed playing golf after a 12-year hiatus, and she encourages other young women attorneys to keep doing the things they love to do. “It’s been a wonderful rediscovery, and I regret having given it up during those years. The game has given me so much in life.” Donesky joined the Minneapolis Golf Club in late 2018 and was recently elected to serve on the club’s board of directors. She also started competing again as well. Having just turned 50, she will begin playing in senior tournaments this summer. 

From her student days of applying for essay contests and competitive scholarships in order to attend law school in the U.S. to the significant legal victories she has achieved for her clients, Donesky has proven that she is both a resourceful problem solver and keen litigator. She looks forward to applying her same hard work ethic in the years to come helping clients and parties achieve their objectives, whether it be counseling, litigating or mediating. 

Stinson LLP 

50 S 6th Street, Suite 2600 
Minneapolis, MN 55402 
(612) 335-1500

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