News

Defamation suit brought by Menlo Park fire board director settled

Suit brought against fire board director by John Woodell still scheduled for trial

Six days before the trial in one defamation case is set to begin, a second defamation lawsuit spawned by the same incident was settled, according to a San Mateo County Superior Court filing.

John Woodell, husband of Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, agreed to pay $5,000.01 to fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly in exchange for the dismissal of her lawsuit against him, a document filed with the court on April 1 revealed.

The lawsuit filed by Mr. Woodell against Ms. Kiraly and Menlo Park resident Chuck Bernstein, who was elected to the fire board after the complaint was made, remains active; that trial is scheduled to start Monday (April 7).

Although the agreement was stamped "Confidential" and a court protective order prohibiting the disclosure of some types of information in the lawsuit has been in place since late last year, the settlement agreement ended up accessible to the public via the court's online database.

California's civil procedures code for this type of offer, known as a "998", requires that it be filed with the court, which typically makes the documents available to view. Judges have even ruled in some cases that including a confidentiality clause in a 998 offer invalidates the agreement -- but it's unclear whether that applies here, given the protective order.

Attorneys for both parties were unable to shed any light on the matter.

"I'm sorry, I would like to comment, but I cannot. I cannot discuss confidential documents even if those confidential documents are improperly filed in open court," said attorney Seth Rosenberg, who represents Mr. Woodell. He added that nothing changes the confidentiality of a document pursuant to a court order other than following the appropriate procedures.

Harmeet Dhillon, representing Ms. Kiraly, likewise said she was not able to comment.

Mr. Woodell filed his complaint in 2012, alleging the pair told the media, police and others that he had vandalized Ms. Kiraly's campaign signs during the 2011 fire board election, after Mr. Bernstein discovered an uprooted Kiraly-campaign sign in his yard lying next to a cellphone that turned out to be Mr. Woodell's. Mr. Woodell has denied vandalizing the sign.

Ms. Kiraly filed her own lawsuit against Mr. Woodell late last year, based on an email sent by Mr. Woodell to a former Menlo Park council member that suggested the fire board director had somehow gotten hold of his phone. She stated in her court filings that she has never had Mr. Woodell's cellphone.

According to Mr. Woodell's attorney, the evidence shows that Ms. Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein set out to create a scandal when the two exchanged emails regarding the sign incident and wondered whether to forget the whole matter, inform the police, or call a newspaper.

For details about the incident and subsequent legal actions, click here.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chuck Bernstein
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 3, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Someone alerted me to this post. I want to clarify two matters:

1. The "his" with the uncertain antecedent in the second-to-last paragraph refers to Mr. Woodell, not Mr. Bernstein. My attorney did not comment on the matter.

2. The statement made is entirely false. No one set out to create a scandal. Indeed, if someone could create a scandal, he or she would have a multi-million-dollar consulting practice. The statement is Mr. Woodell's attorney creating his own evidence in an attempt to win his case in the press.

--Chuck Bernstein
444 Oak Court, Menlo Park, CA 94025


 +   Like this comment
Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Lawsuits don't get much more frivolous than this. Mr. Woodall's cell phone could have accidentally ended up near the vandalized sign but the chances are slim. He is very active in the democratic party and Kiraly is a republican, so he certainly didn't support her.

More likely he is embarrased about getting caught and has used this action to obscure the truth. An individual involved in these extreme antics should not be influencing the political decisions of his wife. Keith should call it quits after her term on the council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sandy Brundage, Almanac Staff Writer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm

We have clarified the reference to John Woodell's attorney, and also added a link to an earlier story that provided detail from court documents regarding those allegations for those who would like more information than provided in the summary here.

Sandy


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Perry Mason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 4, 2014 at 8:21 am

To read the offer and acceptance of the settlement click here

Web Link



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 4, 2014 at 9:20 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This issue has nothing to do with the Fire District and it is a disservice for the Almanac to continue to include references to the Fire District in its reporting.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:03 am

you think it might have something to do with the two Fire Directors??? No, it doesn't involve the Fire District but I know I will not vote for one of them due to the kindergarten behavior!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:40 am

Steve C, based on your logic, you should agree, then, with "long time resident" and not vote for her if she runs for re-election this November. As an attorney, I'm sure she has been advising her husband. With the kind of stupid decisions they have made, how on earth would you trust her to make policy decisions on issues like the downtown specific plan, pensions, and other development issues?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:42 am

Steve C, "her" refers to Kirsten Keith, wife of John Woodell.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:43 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"you think it might have something to do with the two Fire Directors???"

Not if you actually THINK. This involves three private citizens involved in civil suits which has NOTHING to do with any of their responsibilities as elected officials.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

reread what I said. I know you like to argue a lot. My comment doesn't change. Its sad when public officials act like babies.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Steve - You don't seem to understand that Kiraly and Berstein were sued by Woodell and they had no choice but to defend themselves. What would you have done?

And their actions were not in their capacities as public officials.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Republican
a resident of another community
on Apr 5, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Kirsten Keith should not be judged for the behavior of her husband just as Mr. Kiraly should not be judged for the behavior of his wife. Ms. Keith's husband has an attorney so why are some people making unsubstantiated claims that Ms. Keith is giving her husband legal advice. No one knows whether she has done that and to make such claims is reckless and irresponsible.

Even though Kirsten Keith is holding a non-partisan office she has done well by the people of Menlo Park, acts in a non-partisan manner and has earned our gratitude with her thoughtfuness and compassion. She is always prepared, treats the residents of Menlo Park with dignity and respect, deeply cares about our great city, and casts informed votes in our best interests.

Ms. Kiraly, on the other hand, has tepid support even from within her own political party and routinely irritates people with her puerile behavior. She is often disrespectful and sometimes has difficulty controlling her anger.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Another Republican
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 5, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Republican has slightly overstated the accomplishments of Ms. Keith; but has also equally understated the negatives against Ms. Kiraly.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 5, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

How do anonymous posters screw up their courage to attack known individuals?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike Keenly
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 5, 2014 at 11:17 pm

Because the story indicates that Ms. Kiraly is a fire board director, which is true, how is that defaming the Fire District? That seems like a stretch.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 6, 2014 at 7:11 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Mike - as I posted days ago:
This issue has nothing to do with the Fire District and it is a disservice for the Almanac to continue to include references to the Fire District in its reporting.

I never used the word 'defaming' - where did you find that?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike Keenly
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

Peter,

Sorry, my mistake. Then again, the above article doesn't mention anything about the Fire District.

Ms. Kiraly is a fire board director. I believe the reference is only there put this completely ridiculous issue in some context.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 9:16 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Mike - I agree that it is completely ridiculous which is why I think the Almanac is engaging in poor and sensational journalism in linking this to the Fire District.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sandy Brundage, Almanac Staff Writer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 7, 2014 at 11:52 am

Peter:

The conduct of elected officials is relevant, particularly when it relates to conduct during a campaign to seek such office. The lawsuits involve two current fire board directors and a third person who has been involved in supporting fire board candidates over an incident that happened during a fire board campaign. It is simply not possible to report on the lawsuits without making reference to the fire board; they do not involve three random, non-public figure people.

Sandy


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 11:57 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Sandy,
" an incident that happened during a fire board campaign." clearly proves that this incident did NOT involve individuals engaged in their Fire Board responsibilities.

If the Editor was involved in an incident on his way to work would you headline the story "Almanac Editor involved in xxxxxx"? I doubt it.

Of course your current headline attracts more attention which is probably why it was written the way it is.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Relevant
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Here two fire board members are involved in some sort of shenanigans. The public has the right to know how their elected officials behave. I know they were sued first. Most people believe it takes two to tango.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Here two fire board members are involved in some sort of shenanigans."

Two logical fallacies in one short sentence.

First, neither of these individuals is involved in this issue as a Fire Board Director.

Second, defending yourself when someone else sues you hardly fits the definition of "shenanigans." - which is "a devious trick used especially for an underhand purpose".

I note that the Almanac did not identify Mr. Woodell's employer or the employer of the missing Menlo Park woman - the association with the Fire District is simply to attract reader attention and has no journalistic justification. And Relevant has fallen right into the trap.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by No need to sound defensive
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Apr 7, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Peter,
If three people were applying for a job at Facebook, and one of them potentially vandalized another's car in the FB parking lot, and -- perhaps coincidentally -- that person's phone was found near the vandalized car, I'll bet that the Almanac's article would note that the incident took place in the FB parking lot and involved prospective employees. Moreover, I doubt that Mark Zuckerberg would comment on Town Square protesting the inclusion, lest it do a disservice to FB.
When you consider that these individuals were not applying for a job at a company, but instead were seeking a position of governance in a local election, the community has all the more reason to understand the relevant context.
BTW, how is you position on the Fire Board working out?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"how is you position on the Fire Board working out?"

Great - it is a privilege to be in my tenth year of service on the Fire Board.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by No need to sound defensive
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Apr 7, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Thank you for your service to the public.

I can appreciate your apparent desire to not drag the Fire Board into what seems like an embarrassing local escapade. However, I hope that you can also appreciate that the public can very likely differentiate between the actions of individuals and those of an organization.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"you can also appreciate that the public can very likely differentiate between the actions of individuals and those of an organization."

I can but it does not appear that the Almanac wishes to do so since it keeps referring to these individuals as Fire Board Directors - evidently because sensationalism rather than accuracy be sells newspapers. So I will give up on this and hope that No need is right.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kaz
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 7, 2014 at 7:48 pm

I wonder why Peter is so invested in this -- overly protective of Kiraly, or overly territorial about Almanac discussions (he does seem to dominate)?

I am glad to see that people are referring to Kiraly's behavior as a root cause. She is not a good fit for public office, because she takes everything so deeply personally and can only see one view of an issue. Public office requires more flexibility and true dedication to the public good. She's in it for herself, not for the broad public.

When this first came out, I was thrilled that someone was standing up to her bullying tactics. She tries to punish people who don't support her. Good for Woodall for drawing a line in the sand and standing firm by requirements of decent public behavior. I hope he wins his case, and I hope Kiraly finds something better to do with her life.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 7, 2014 at 8:22 pm

John Woodell, Kirsten Keith, and their attorney are an embarrassment. Kiraly didn't do anything except run for office, and she has the right to do that like any citizen, such as Kirsten Keith. If you don't like Kiraly's politics, that's one thing. However, if you think Woodell's cell phone incident is her fault, you are wrong. She had nothing to do with his cell phone landing in Bernstein's yard. Woodell's theories are preposterous.

If Kiraly's reading these postings, I'm sure she would find some hurtful and attacking, but I doubt she would sue anyone over that. Woodell and Keith need to grow up and stop whining or get out of politics! I would prefer the latter. They are an embarrassment to Menlo Park and San Mateo County.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Transparency
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Apr 7, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Grow up. Woodell's phone is found on private property and he sues - shouldn't he be more concerned with the tail between his legs? Perhaps he was pressured by his wife, perhaps not.

Where is the transparency? And let's face it; who cares? This never should have gone this far. Don't we have more important things to do with our time?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Kaz - it is tragic that this Forum not only permits but fosters the kind of anonymous attacks like yours on known individuals. I am quite certain the you have never attended a Fire Board meeting and hence have no personal knowledge of Kiraly's performance in that role. I have served with her and can assure those whom we both serve that she does an excellent job.

And what exactly have you done to serve your community?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Please help us
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 8, 2014 at 12:33 am

Peter,
Thanks for your service to our community. Why don't you use your talents and run for the Atherton town council. It appears to be an open race there and they need your help. You are a well known and respected name in the community. You can move on to a more honorable and professional position. Not many people know what the fire board is, let alone what it does or care. You would serve the community best there, not a babysitter, dealing with crybabies as with the fire board. Unless you want to fall into the category like Jack Nelson, a want to be firefighter.....you're too smart to fall into that trap? Move on, you're better than that!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 7:36 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Please - Thank you for you gratitude, it is deeply appreciated.

Given my firefighting, smoke jumping and crisis management experience I can serve the public far better as a Fire Director than I could as a Town Councilor. And there is no doubt in my mind that the fire service is the most honorable and professional of all local agency services.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Perry Mason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 8, 2014 at 8:13 am

Kiraly's lawsuit against Woodell was settled. Woodell's lawsuit against Kiraly was not. Voir Dire was supposed to begin yesterday (April 7, 2014).

The defendants Kiraly and Bernstein were ready to proceed with the trial; however, the plaintiff Woodell was not. His attorney asked for a continuance.

This is from the San Mateo County Superior Court website:

"WITH AUTHORIZATION FROM THE PRESIDING JUDGE, THE TRIAL DATE IS CONTINUED TO JANUARY 26, 2015 AT 9:00 A.M. IN THE DEPT OF THE PRESIDING JUDGE. ANOTHER MANDATORY SETTLEMENT CONFERENCE WILL BE SET. CLERKS OFFICE SHALL SEND NOTICE."

I can only imagine the serious ass chewing the judge gave to the parties in chambers, excoriating them for wasting the court's time. Good for the judge.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 8, 2014 at 8:47 am

Perry Mason,

As far as I can see, Kiraly has done her part with saving the court time. Woodell cannot seem to let this go. He probably hasn't even tried to settle his case.

The bigger question is why wasn't Woodell ready to go to trial? He filed this frivolous lawsuit and has had over a year to get his case together. In my opinion, if you're telling the truth, you should have been ready to make your case of truth, especially if you filed the lawsuit. That didn't happen. Now, the public has to deal with Woodell's fiasco for another nine months. God help us!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Post tells a somewhat different story - that the Judge "told attorneys in the case that a jury will never hear the case as long as he is a sitting judge, and he has five years to serve" "saving it was a low priority given other matter before the court.

Interestingly neither in the Post headline or in the Post story was Kiraly referred to a Fire Board Director and the only mention of the Fire District was when the Post described the incident as occurring when Kiraly was a "candidate for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District".

Yes, the story can be told, and told well, without using sensational headlines and inappropriate identifiers.

Well done Jeramy Gordon and David Price at The Post.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter's service
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 8, 2014 at 10:38 am

Peter may enjoy serving on the fire board, and that is where his interests may lie. BUT, he is much more NEEDED in Atherton due to the enormity of mismanagement at the council level. He knows how to deal with unions making unreasonable demands. Too bad he won't spend four years trying to fix the deep problems in Atherton.


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