By JUSTINE FREDERIKSEN The Daily Journal
Judge LaCasse to decide if former teacher Dennis Boaz was defamed by school administrator
A civil lawsuit stemming from former South Valley High School history teacher Dennis Boaz’s use of the word “niggardly” was heard Friday in Mendocino County Small Claims Court.
Boaz, now retired from the Ukiah Unified School District, filed suit last year against district Assistant Superintendent of Personnel and Student Services Bryan Barrett for defamation, claiming his reputation was damaged when Barrett wrote a letter characterizing his use of the word niggardly as “racism” or “suggested racism.”
Barrett addressed the March 17, 2009, memorandum to Sherry Sandoval, former Ukiah Teachers Association president, and other officials stating: “This memo is formal notice to UTA that Mr. Boaz’s communication is insulting and unacceptable … (and) racism or suggested racism has absolutely no place in this district.”
“They had no reasonable basis to (claim) that I was making a racist statement,” Boaz told Judge Leonard LaCasse Friday, explaining that he used the word niggardly – defined as “unwilling to give, spend, or share; stingy” – in a bargaining report while serving as lead negotiator for the UTA, writing: “the tenor of the negotiation tactics of the (district office) has become increasingly negative and niggardly.”
Boaz said he wrote the report during “a time of frustration,” and admitted it was “sarcastic.”
When LaCasse asked Boaz to detail his damages, Boaz said in addition to the damage to his reputation “as a teacher and a writer,” he suffered a financial loss of $1,200, the amount he would have been paid had he not stepped down from his position of lead negotiator for the UTA.
“I no longer felt it was appropriate to remain in that position, given my lawsuit,” he said.
Boaz said he also suffered physical and emotional damages, claiming that his blood pressure was elevated for more than a month, and thoughts of the case kept him from sleeping for several months.
Barrett told LaCasse his letter regarding Boaz’s “racism or suggested racism” was stating a “non-actionable opinion” in regards to defamation, and though he knew at the time what the word meant, he still objected to its use.
“It was an inappropriate time and place to use that terminology,” Barrett said. “We have the only African-American superintendent in the county, and there were thousands of other words that could have been used.”
Outside the courtroom, Barrett further explained that although UUSD Superintendent Lois Nash also knew the definition of niggardly, “it is how it is taken (that is important) – how it was used in the past.”
LaCasse did not render a judgment Friday on Boaz’s suit, which is asking for $7,500 in damages, the maximum for small claims court, explaining he wanted to further research whether the racism inference was “a privileged opinion (rather than) actionable slander.”
The judge said his primary focus would be the “existence of malice” in Barrett’s letter, adding that there is the “presumption of malice if (he) knew the word’s definition.”
Regardless, LaCasse said that while being called a racist “40 years ago may have been a badge of honor, today it can be devastating to someone’s career.” He has a maximum of 60 days to file his decision.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Boaz admitted that he was “pushing buttons” by writing the original report, which he pointed out also included the phrase “Welcome to Draconia,” but was still surprised and hurt by the district’s response.
“I expected them to be annoyed, but I never expected to be called a racist,” he said, describing the district’s reaction as both “collective stupidity” and an “attempt to get rid of me.”
“At first I was amused by the response, and then I was angry,” he said.
Barrett said he was “kind of disappointed (the lawsuit) has come this far, but I understand the system allows Mr. Boaz to pursue it.”
A separate lawsuit Boaz filed against Paul Tichinin, the superintendent of the Mendocino County Office of Education, was continued until September.
Justine Frederiksen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.