A parent's malicious e-crusade against a coach runs afoul of libel law.
Instant communication, the hallmark of the digital age, has made so many aspects of modern life more convenient, but it has complicated the lives of coaches in at least one significant way. A generation ago, a parent with a bone to pick might cool off before managing to complete a letter to the school board. Nowadays, criticism - or worse - occurs in real time, and the Internet allows this sort of communication to go viral with just a few keystrokes.
Mary Anne Bojko grew up in East Hartford, Conn., where both her parents taught in the public schools and her father coached swimming. Her first job out of college was teaching and coaching at East Hartford High School, her alma mater. She worked at East Hartford from 1988 to 1999 (she coached swimming for nine years), moved on to the Windsor school system from 1999 through the 2005-06 school year, and then returned to East Hartford to, once again, teach and coach swimming.
One of the girls on the swim team was Hope Lima, whose mother Laurie was by her own admission very involved in the academic lives of her two daughters. While Lima was generally pleased with Bojko's performance as a coach in 2006, the two had a misunderstanding near the end of the fall 2007 swim season. On Oct. 26, 2007, Lima sent Bojko an e-mail in which she complimented her as a coach and also suggested that she pay for a banquet for the swim team. Bojko rejected the idea, however, because East Hartford had a policy of providing an all-sports dinner at the end of each athletic season. Lima, who was aware of the policy, was angered by Bojko's response and fired off (in addition to hundreds of e-mails to Bojko) an e-mail to the school principal, Matthew Ryan. In the e-mail, Lima accused Bojko of being a pedophile and demanded that Bojko be removed as coach.
Lima admitted later, under oath, that she realized that the allegation was sensitive (and, in fact, admitted she had no basis for her claim). However, when she did not receive a response from Ryan, Lima sent additional e-mails to Bojko's colleagues, students, school administrators, and local and state officials (including the Mayor of East Hartford, the state Attorney General and the Governor of Connecticut). In the e-mails, Lima repeatedly used the term "pedophile," claimed that Bojko had abused her daughter, and demanded that Bojko be fired and that the State Board of Education and the Department of Children and Families investigate her.
Bojko requested that Lima write a retraction, but Lima refused. Instead, she sent more e-mails, including one to the district superintendent, Marion Martinez, in which she again linked Bojko and the term "pedophile." Bojko sued. In Mary Anne Bojko v. Laurie A. Lima [2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1359], she sought money damages, punitive damages and injunctive relief against Lima for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference with a business relationship.
In reviewing the facts, the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Hartford, found that there was absolutely no evidence that Bojko engaged in any improper conduct, and that Lima's e-mail attacks were intentionally malicious, outrageous and evil. The court noted that Lima's numerous e-mails had a negative impact on Bojko's emotional and physical well-being. As a result of Lima's crusade against her, Bojko began seeing a counselor and required medication for sleep loss, weight loss and anxiety. Bojko was so distraught over Lima's baseless, malicious accusations that she eventually resigned as coach of the swim team and also took a leave of absence from teaching.
Lima's admissions made the court's deliberations on the charges of defamation and libel (written defamation) relatively simple. Bojko was able to demonstrate that: (1) Lima published a defamatory statement; (2) the defamatory statement identified Bojko to a third person; (3) the defamatory statement was published to a third person; and (4) Bojko's reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement. In ruling that Bojko was able to prove her claim for libel, the court ruled that falsely accusing anyone who works with children of being a pedophile is defamatory on its face.
Bojko's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was also straightforward. Finding Lima's conduct extreme and outrageous, the court noted that Lima clearly engaged in such conduct to inflict emotional distress on Bojko. In fact, Lima admitted she enjoyed the fact that the false allegations caused Bojko distress and that she found it "hysterical" to send the defamatory e-mails to as many people as possible.
In order to recover for tortious interference, the court held that Bojko must prove that: (1) a business relationship existed between her and another party; (2) Lima intentionally interfered with the business relationship while knowing of the relationship; and (3) as a result of the interference, Bojko suffered actual loss. In ruling in favor of Bojko, the court found that she had a business relationship with East Hartford High School, and that Lima knew of this relationship and used tortious means (the defamatory e-mails) to interfere with that relationship. As a result of the interference, Bojko suffered an actual loss when she resigned as coach of the swimming team after the 2007 season.
Having ruled against Lima on every count, the court awarded Bojko $88,374 for her economic damages (her loss of coaching income and her therapist bills), the emotional distress caused by Lima's conduct and punitive damages.
In today's society, many parents feel entitled to voice their displeasure over every coaching decision, especially when it involves their child. Social media networks have compounded the problem by making it easier for parents to challenge and even defame coaches instantly, and to a broad audience.
While, thankfully, most coaches do not have to deal with parents such as Laurie Lima, they should keep in mind the particulars of libel law when dealing with an out-of-control parent. It is essential that the defamatory statement be either spoken (slander) or written (libel) to a third party. Once it is communicated to another person, the first element of any defamation suit has been shown.
As illustrated by this case, to recover damages, a coach's reputation must have suffered an actual injury as a result of the parent's defamatory or libelous statements. Therefore, it is essential that coaches keep track of any financial injury they may suffer because of a parent's conduct. If a coach is fired as a result of a parent's false comments, an injury is clear. But even a coach who takes a paid leave of absence, as Bojko did (twice), can win damages if he or she can prove an injury to his or her reputation.
Bojko's win didn't net her millions and hasn't healed her wounds. (As of this writing, Bojko is teaching seventh grade science at East Hartford but has not returned to coaching.) However, the decision by the Superior Court of Connecticut sends a clear message that parents cannot unjustly try to ruin a coach's career without fear of the law.