Board members with the Sawdust Art Festival might not have to go to court after all to defend themselves against a lawsuit filed by ousted longtime exhibitor Jim Steins.
Reversing an earlier tentative ruling, a Superior Court judge dismissed Steins’ suit against three members Nov. 20, deciding the volunteers should not be held personally liable for actions taken on behalf of the nonprofit corporation.
Steins was voted out of the festival in 2006 after an allegation of sexual harassment was lodged against him by a festival employee.
Judge Franz E. Miller also dismissed Steins’ suit against the Sawdust Festival Corporation, but granted him 10 days to amend the suit. Steins had filed the suit without an attorney but has since retained legal counsel.
Miller also ruled that Steins was not defamed by a letter from the board to the Sawdust membership outlining the accusation against him.
Steins’ attorney, Bruce Dannemeyer, said his client will appeal the ruling that the lawsuit violated the state’s law prohibiting SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
“It was disappointing because the tentative ruling was the opposite,” Dannemeyer said, adding that, “At the hearing, the judge was sympathetic to the directors of the Sawdust Festival.”
Miller had issued a tentative ruling in October rejecting the anti-SLAPP defense as not applicable to the board members.
Sawdust attorney Michael Dawe said he is pleased with the final ruling. Dawe had argued that the anti-SLAPP law was enacted in part to protect volunteer board members of nonprofit organizations such as the Sawdust Festival.
Dawe added that, because the Sawdust Festival has insurance that could cover damages arising from a lawsuit, individuals should not be targeted.
“When a nonprofit has insurance, there is no need to drag individuals into it,” Dawe said.
Steins accused former board members Sian Poeschl and Marsh Scott and committee member James Stanaland, of conspiring to oust him from the festival. He is seeking $1.6 million in damages.