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Menlo Park: Judge lets defamation lawsuit proceed against John Woodell

The ruling, issued on Jan. 8 in San Mateo County Superior Court, found that the director, Virginia Chang Kiraly, had met the legal threshold for showing evidence of defamation as well as malice.

"We are very pleased the court very thoroughly analyzed all of the arguments, and rejected the assertion that anything goes when talking about a politician," said Harmeet Dhillon, attorney for Ms. Kiraly.

A recap of what has brought the parties to this point: Mr. Woodell filed a defamation complaint against fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly and Menlo Park resident Chuck Bernstein in 2012, alleging the pair told the media, police and others that he had vandalized her campaign signs during the 2011 fire board election, after Mr. Bernstein discovered an uprooted sign in his yard, lying next to a cellphone that turned out to be Mr. Woodell's.

Ms. Kiraly filed her own defamation lawsuit against Mr. Woodell late last year, and then Mr. Woodell filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss it. The court's ruling concluded that she showed sufficient evidence to allow her lawsuit to proceed.

In mid-December 2011, Mr. Woodell made statements to a third party that "can reasonably be understood to mean that Kiraly had Woodell's cell phone during the relevant time period and was entrenched in a set up to frame him for the sign incident," Judge Joseph Bergeron wrote.

Ms. Kiraly's lawsuit cited an email sent from Mr. Woodell to former Menlo Park council member Mickie Winkler that said, "Virginia is obviously entrenched, but I'd like to find a way to get her to consider another path. Chuck knows that Virginia had my phone, and now he obviously knows that she told him what he needed to hear... to get himself entrenched. ..."

Ms. Kiraly stated in her court filings that she has never had Mr. Woodell's cellphone.

In this type of hearing, the court does not evaluate the strength of any evidence, but rather accepts as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff to determine whether the plaintiff shows a probability of prevailing.

Attorney Seth Rosenberg of Minami Tamaki LLP, who represents Mr. Woodell, said they are considering all options, including an appeal.

According to the attorney, Ms. Kiraly's defamation claim relies upon a single piece of evidence despite hours of depositions and the collection of hundreds of documents.

"Trust me, if Ms. Kiraly had any additional evidence at all in support of her claim, she would have submitted it in opposition to our motion. If not, that was a remarkable gamble to take to rely on that one e-mail in opposing our motion. That one email is all they have and I have seen or heard nothing to indicate any different," Mr. Rosenberg told the Almanac by email.

Ms. Dhillon said that a single false statement is all she needs. "There's no weight or volume requirement by law."

She pointed out evidence collection is far from over, as each anti-SLAPP motion suspends discovery until the court rules; Mr. Woodell has not yet finished giving his deposition, and her firm has not yet been able to seek discovery from other people as a result.

From her perspective, the case is about "Mr. Woodell's hurt feelings over other people's conclusions about his phone being found (next to the sign). ... People say mean, mean things about me as a lawyer and politician all the time. That's just life. You move on from that."

According to the opposing counsel, the real story is Mr. Woodell's evidence that from the beginning, Ms. Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein "wanted to create a scandal at the expense of an innocent person for their own purposes."

Mr. Rosenberg highlighted an email dated Oct. 17, 2011, where Mr. Bernstein informed Ms. Kiraly that he had found what appeared to be Mr. Woodell's cellphone. He asked whether she would like a scandal that would make the front page, or whether she would rather forget the whole thing.

Ms. Kiraly replied by email that she thought he should go to the police, said she didn't want to forget the matter because she had "a feeling (Mr. Woodell's) involved w/ other shenanigans too re: my campaign" and wondered whether to call the Post.

After Mr. Woodell filed his defamation complaint, Ms. Kiraly in turn filed an anti-SLAPP motion, but lost, leaving his lawsuit free to proceed as well.

Mr. Bernstein, elected to the fire board in November 2013, represented himself in a defamation countersuit against Mr. Woodell; his complaint was dismissed when a judge granted Mr. Woodell's anti-SLAPP.

"This is one for the record books," said Ms. Dhillon, who has been an attorney for more than 20 years. "I've never seen a case before with three different anti-SLAPP motions."

The court has scheduled a settlement conference for March 20, and set a trial date of April 7.

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