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Trial in Bouris-Coughlin lawsuit, filed in 2010, began Dec. 2

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Expected to take 2 to 3 weeks

The federal trial in which a fired Ottoson principal and teacher seek $7 million began in U.S. District Court in Boston on Monday, Dec. 2, after a number of delays in a case that dates to 2007.

One impetus for the lawsuit dates to July of that year, when YourArlington published a report that then-Principal Stavroula Bouris and Charles E. Coughlin Jr. were under investigation for "potential inappropriate conduct" involving a series of emails written on the schools' computer system. Bouris and Coughlin were fired the next month, and a systems technician was cleared. The suit was filed Feb. 8, 2010.

The trial, expected take from two to three weeks, was to start last June after failures in a number of attempts to settle in 2012, but the case of James "Whitey" Bulger helped lead to delays. Senior Judge Mark L. Wolf will hear the case.

The defendants, witness lists

Recent public documents in the case provide background for the trial. They were filed in November by attorneys for the plaintiffs, Bouris and Coughlin, as well as the defendants, former Superintendent Nathan Levenson, School Committee member Jeff Thielman and systems technician Tracy Buck. The town and School Committee are no longer defendants.

A witness list for the plaintiffs, in addition to Coughlin and Bouris, include:

Former School Committee members Martin Thrope, state Rep. Sean Garballey, Denise Burns and Joseph Curran; Lawrence Greco, a former Ottoson math teacher; Kathleen Donovan, former school superintendent; Michael McCabe, former Thompson School principal;  Alan Miller and Kay Hideki Hodge, attorneys at Stoneman Chandler, which represent the School Committee; Steven Mazzola, former head of technology for town and schools; Superintendent Kathleen Bodie, described in the list as "Town of Arlington Keeper of the Records"; Julianna Rice, until September Arlington town counsel; Ronald Colosi, former teachers' union president; Eric Saum, former assistant principal at Ottoson; Thielman, Levenson and Buck, in 2008 a systems technician.

Witnesses listed by the defense -- in addition to Levenson, Thielman, Buck, Coughlin and Bouris -- include:

Charles Skidmore, former Arlington High principal; Susan Lovelace, Suzanne Owayda and Kathy Fennelly, former School Committee members; Bob Sprague, YourArlington publisher; Mazzola, Joan Roman, town Webmaster; Karen Tassone, former School Committee secretary; Patricia Plagge and Marie Carroll, former administrative assistants to the superintendent; Tom Scott, executive director, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents; and Bodie.
The attorneys involved are Frank Mondano and Maria A. Luise, representing Bouris and Coughlin; Barry C. Klickstein and Jillian B. Hirsch, representing Levenson; Mark B. Lavoie and Matthew C. Mastromauro, representing Thielman; and Cheryl A. Waterhouse and Christina S. Raevska, representing Buck.

Juliana Rice is listed in a Nov. 20 document as representing the Town of Arlington, but the town is no longer a defendant in the case. Rice left for a position in the attorney general's office in September. Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine wrote Nov. 26 that town attorney Ed Marlenga will be monitoring the trial on behalf of the town.

Defendants' objections to jury instructions

Objections by the defendants, filed Nov. 20 in response to jury instructions the plaintiffs proposed in September, point to differences over one issue that will arise in court -- defamation.

Attorneys for the defendants object to an instruction about defamation "on the grounds that (a) it does not identify the distinct and different standards that govern proof of defamation as against a private figure as opposed to a public figure, and (b) it does not specifically state that proof of compensatory damages is an element of plaintiffs’ defamation claim.

"With respect to (a), a 'public figure' is an individual who 'injected [himself/herself] into a public controversy' .... To prove defamation as against a public figure, plaintiffs must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the allegedly defamatory statements were published with 'actual malice,' i.e., that the defendants acted with knowledge of the statements’ falsity or reckless disregard of whether the statements were false."

Attorneys for the defendants write further:

"Plaintiffs omit a critical element of their claim, namely that they must prove Mr. Levenson’s conduct 'shocked the conscience.' Mere violations of state law – even where arbitrary, capricious, or undertaken in bad faith – do not, without more, give rise to a denial of substantive due process under the United States Constitution."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs can be expected to respond to these objections.

Early case background from court papers

Here are some facts as they are presented in recent court papers:

Coughlin began employment in the Arlington public schools about Sept. 8, 1999. He was hired to teach technology courses to seventh- and eighth-graders at Ottoson. In 2002, he was promoted to the lead teacher of the technology education department.

Bouris began her employment with the Arlington public schools in September 1998, when she became as Ottoson's assistant principal. In 2002, she was promoted to principal at Ottoson.

Bouris and Coughlin shared a close relationship as colleagues and friends. Between 1999 and 2007, they exchanged emails daily, as did others.

Plaintiffs say Levenson targeted Bouris

After Kathleen Donovan retired as superintendent, the School Committee hired Levenson, and he began work in July 2005. Shortly thereafter, a court document says, acting as superintendent, Levenson "embarked on a course of action designed to oust Bouris from her position as principal at the Ottoson."

For example, the plaintiffs' document says, "Levenson hired a 'mentor' to work with Bouris who in reality functioned as a spy. Bouris was the only experienced principal assigned a 'mentor.'

In June 2006, Levenson evaluated Bouris and noted that "no one on this planet is better positioned to help move the Ottoson from good to great," the document says, while also setting goals for Bouris that appeared to be at odds with the praise.

In November 2006, the document says, Levenson issued a "Memo of Concern" suggesting that her job performance was deficient.

In late January 2007, Levenson visited Bouris at Ottoson and told her he was not sure he would renew her contract. About Feb. 12, 2007, the paper says Levenson attempted to coerce a resignation out of Bouris. She refused.

Decision not to renew contract led to public outcry

About March 7, 2007, Levenson made public his decision not to renew Bouris's contract, which provoked an immediate public outcry.

At the March 13, 2007, School Committee meeting, Lawrence Greco, an Ottoson math teacher, announced that the schools staff had voted 100 percent to support Bouris and 100-percent support of no confidence in Levenson.

Martin Thrope, then a sitting member of the School Committee member, publicly raised questions about the motives behind Levenson's decision not to renew Bouris's contract, his ability to function as a manager. Thrope made a motion for a vote of "no confidence" in the superintendent.

In subsequent School Committee meetings, Bouris and supporters, notably Coughlin, reported that Levenson had never been appointed as assistant superintendent of the Harvard public schools as Levenson's resume says.

The public response led Levenson to change his decision and to renew Bouris's contract.

Plaintiffs allege retaliation

Thereafter, the plaintiffs allege, Levenson sought ways to retaliate against both Bouris and Coughlin.

In April 2007, the plaintiffs allege, Thielman approached Coughlin and told him that if he continued to challenge the superintendent and/or School Committee, he would lose his job.

In March, April and May 2007, the plaintiffs allege, Levenson began monitoring the email account of Bouris.

In early June 2007, Buck said she received an anonymous note that suggested that Bouris and Coughlin were engaged in an improper relationship. Buck said she promptly destroyed the note and is the only person who claims to have seen it, the plaintiffs' document says.

The plaintiffs' account continues: On about June 6, 2007, Levenson acting alone or with Buck and/or others, accessed and printed emails between Coughlin and Bouris that contained a private email user name and password. This information was subsequently used to access Bouris's private email account, they claim.

On June 8, 2007, Levenson wrote down a log of events surrounding the access of e-mail accounts. The plaintiffs' document says it "reveals his knowing contravention of policy, practice, law, and criminal statute. In his log, Levenson accused Buck of crimes and improprieties that he later claimed he fabricated because he was angry at Buck and he needed to deflect blame from himself."

Package of emails received

On June 11, 2007, Levenson said he received an anonymous package containing more printed emails between Bouris and Coughlin, including those said to be from Bouris's private email account.

Levenson retained attorney Alan Miller of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller, the school district's counsel, to investigate the emails. In a June 10, 2007, memo to the School Committee, Levenson indicated that he had received copies of emails between Coughlin and Bouris sent through the school's system.

About June 13, 2007, Coughlin and Bouris received notification from Levenson that he had received unsolicited information from a school employee that indicated inappropriate conduct on their part. Levenson said he had turned the materials over to Miller.

On July 9, 2007, the plaintiffs allege, Miller submitted a report to Levenson confirming an understanding that, unsolicited, Levenson was approached by "a teacher" who gave Levenson a package of emails from the Arlington school system containing correspondence between Coughlin and Bouris. Miller described the emails as containing explicit sexual content.

Before July 15, 2007, before the investigation was completed, Thielman released both emails between Coughlin and Bouris to the press. All of this material was published in the local Arlington e-media as well as the local Arlington print media. The plaintiffs allege the publication included "false allegations of forgery."

Miller's report to Levenson of Aug. 8, 2007, addressed the propriety of how the emails were accessed. The report indicated that there was concern among staff, town officials and the public regarding the potential "invasion of what, for the most part, were intended to be private communications." The conclusion of Miller's report was that Buck "committed no wrongful act and was merely carrying out her job responsibilities."

On Aug. 9, 2007, Levenson announced that Coughlin's employment had been terminated. On Sept. 5, 2007, Bouris’s employment ended.

After that, the plaintiffs' attorney say that, Levenson, "acting alone or in concert with others, fabricated evidence, suppressed the contemporaneous [June 8, 2007] log of purported events surrounding the illegal access of email accounts, perjured himself in related administrative and arbitration proceedings, manufactured false documents, altered documents, destroyed evidence/documents, suppressed documents and manipulated witnesses with half truths and lies."

These are among the claims that the trial is expected to address.

This story was published Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013.

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