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.