Trial delayed in defamation suit against Menlo Park fire board directors

Judge moves trial to January 2015

"My feelings right now are probably similar to what Oakland A's fans felt on Friday night when they showed up for a game, bought their curly fries and beer, and then heard the announcement that the game was cancelled because the field was too wet to use," said Chuck Bernstein in response to a lengthy delay of the trial regarding a defamation lawsuit filed against him and fellow fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly.

"I'm disappointed that we cannot get this matter resolved once and for all. It is a terrible drain on the resources of the parties involved, as well as on the overburdened court system itself," Mr. Bernstein said. "After much effort, we were ready to go to trial. It will be hard to reassemble the witnesses, the exhibits, and the various motions in nine months."

The lawsuit, brought by John Woodell, husband of Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, alleges that the defendants told people that Mr. Woodell had vandalized campaign signs during the 2011 Menlo Park Fire Protection District 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.

The trial was supposed to start Monday (April 7) in San Mateo County Superior Court. But Mr. Woodell's counsel filed a last-minute motion under seal asking for a continuance.

The judge, after several hours, rescheduled the trial for Jan. 26, 2015, and also required the parties to once again attempt to settle the case. However, the judge denied the plaintiff's request to reopen discovery.

Last week, Mr. Woodell agreed to pay $5,000.01 to Ms. Kiraly in exchange for the dismissal of her defamation lawsuit against him, according to court documents. His attorney attributed the request for a continuance to press coverage of the settlement, which he said was supposed to be kept confidential.

Although the plaintiff's team was ready and eager to go to trial, attorney Seth Rosenberg said, they had to ask the court to move the trial date to leave time to deal with any violation of the confidentiality requirements.

"It wastes the court's time and our time when one party chooses not to follow the rules. So we are happy the trial got moved so we can now ask the court to address the misconduct," Mr. Rosenberg said.

According to some who were in court yesterday, the motion for a continuance also included a request for a change of venue on grounds that press coverage has prejudiced potential jurors against Mr. Woodell, in addition to a request for sanctions against the opposing attorney.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents Ms. Kiraly, has challenged the claim that any misconduct had occurred. "The only counsel in this case from the beginning to issue press releases has been plaintiff John Woodell's counsel," she said.

She expressed deep disappointment at the inconvenience to witnesses and the court caused by the delay, but said the judge's ruling indicates "this meritless and damage-less case was ranked as such a low priority for the court that it told us to come back later -- much, much later. We share the court's apparent dim view of the merits of this case, and continue to hope that the plaintiff will re-examine his case, his motives and the ongoing cost and burden of this litigation, and choose to move on with his life."

At least one witness called to testify shared the disappointment about the trial's postponement.

"This trial is a travesty. A campaign sign for the fire board election that was found in the bushes with a cell phone does not warrant two years of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to attorneys," said Menlo Park resident Brielle Johnck, who endorsed Ms. Kiraly during the campaign.

"As one who was served a subpoena to testify in this silly case, I am very disappointed a continuance was requested by John Woodell, as I was eager to put this stressful business behind me."

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


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 11:49 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Once again the Almanac practices sensationalist journalism with its headlines and use of inappropriate identifiers. Note that The Post reported on this same issue without ever once identifying Kiraly or Bernstein with an organization that had nothing to do with this.

Well done The Post.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Publisher replies:
Peter. I fail to understand your continuing misunderstanding of elementary journalism. When two members of the fire board are involved in a legal dispute with a man whose wife is on the city council and who has been accused of ripping out a campaign sign for a now-sitting fire board member, how can you not report the fact that she and the other defendant are not members of the board? To not do so would be irresponsible. Please leave the journalism to us.



And my response to him:

Read the Post article today - that accomplished that simple task very nicely.

And your headline today is the worst so far:

Trial delayed in defamation suit against Menlo Park fire board directors

The suit was NOT against Fire Board Directors or their actions as Fire Board Directors but rather the suit was against two individuals for actions as private citizens.

Cheap journalism , but it must be worth it for you.


Posted by disappointed, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Apr 8, 2014 at 12:38 pm

You have got to be kidding me. Making a big deal because your campaign sign was pulled up? A defamation suit in regards to that? Then a continuance and change in venue request because the jury pool may have been prejudiced? Seriously? I think both sides need to really consider their true importance in this world.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The defendants do not have the option of walking away, only the plaintiff can bring this to a merciful and long overdue end.

Posted by Whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 8, 2014 at 12:55 pm


You clearly don't understand the facts of this case. John Woodell, the person who uprooted and whose phone was found next to a campaign signed filed the lawsuit. Not the other way around! Please understand the facts before you comment. You clearly have no idea what is going on or do not know how to read.

Woodell and Keith should move on with their lives or get out of politics.

Posted by Skeptic, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Let's see now: nine more months' delay on John Woodell's frivolous lawsuit--the main purpose of which seems to be to defy common sense by suggesting that his cellphone and the uprooted yard-sign of someone he opposed, found in close proximity to each other, was just a coincidence--this lawsuit won't straggle into court until January 2015.

Gee, that couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Woodell's wife, attorney Kirsten Keith, will be up for re-election to the Menlo Park City Council in November, would it? It couldn't be that she is worried the judgement will go against her husband and voters will assume she advised him to proceed with this farce of a trial? It couldn't be she wants to try to get this issue off people's radar until after the election, could it?
Nah..didn't think so...

Posted by Roy Thiele-Sardiņa, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Roy Thiele-Sardiņa is a registered user.

This is an unfortunate matter, that should never have continued to the point it did. Many people have had to spend considerable amounts of money on lawyers (including me, for a deposition)

To what end....simply frivolous. Everyone involved should be embarrassed for their actions and for continuing this farce.

Roy Thiele-Sardina

Posted by Skeptic, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 8, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Only ONE person is responsible for continuing this farce: the SAME person who started it in the first place, and who now has succeeded in drawing it out for another 9 long months: John Woodell, Kirsten Keith's husband. Amazing that Keith, as an attorney, would not have advised her husband not to sue in the first place. I have to agree with a previous poster: these people should do us all a favor and get out of politics. Maybe we can help with that...

Posted by Disgusted, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 8, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Everyone involved should not be embarrassed. The 2 defendants in this case had no choice but to hire attorneys and defend themselves. One defendant, Kiraly settled her case for a nominal fee that doesn't come close to the money she spent. As it stands now. Kiraly settled and Woodell still wants his day in court. Too bad it didn't go into arbitration and Woodell would have to pay judges by the hour to listen to his claims.

Yes, skeptic, one person is responsible and his poor wife, our council member Kirsten Keith who should have never have allowed Woodell to file this dumb lawsuit.

Menlo Park looks nuts.

Posted by Patrick Kerwin, a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I am the attorney for Charles Bernstein in the Woodell v. Bernsteina and Kiraly case. Unfortunately, the article is misleading. The article implies that the court continued the trial due to a motion to continue by Woodell's attorney which wasn't the case. Before the parties were ordered to a day of trial settlement conference, the presiding judge told the parties and their attorneys in open court that Woodell's motion to continue would not be granted and the only delay in the trial would be due to lack of courtroom availability. The matter was continued solely because the there were no available trial departments this week, which the settlement conference judge announced to all in the courtroom yesterday afternoon. Obviously, the reporter who wrote the article was not there.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 8, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here is a very factual article on this matter and without a sensational headline:

Web Link

Posted by Not good, a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2014 at 9:25 pm

"Kiraly's lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon, said Dylina clearly lost patience with what he described as a "frivolous" case. The judge continued the trial date to Jan. 26, 2015 and made a point of telling the parties of how understaffed the San Mateo County court system is and that more important cases have higher priority, Dhillon said in a phone interview Monday."

Ms. Dhillon IS NOT supposed to be discussing what goes on during settlement conferences, which are strictly confidential to enable parties to frankly discuss resolution mechanisms without fear of being quoted. Nor is the judge or mediator supposed to be quoted. Perhaps this is a contributing cause to why this case cannot get resolved.

Posted by Whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 8, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Not Good,

How do you know Ms. Dillon isn't quoting what the judge said to all parties in an open setting? You don't. And you make a ridiculous conclusion because your bias is against Kiraly and Dhillon?

This case is not settling because Woodell does not want to settle it. Kiraly has settled hers with Woodell paying her $5,000. She's done her part. If Woodell were smart, or if his wife (Menlo Park council woman Kirsten Keith) gave him some good legal and wifely advice, he would drop this case, which the judge clearly thinks is a huge waste of the court's time. Woodell and Keith are either that stupid or greedy and want money from Kiraly and Bernstein. Either way, they and their attorney are wasting the court's time and the defendants' money.

Posted by Not Good, a resident of another community
on Apr 9, 2014 at 8:43 am

"How do you know Ms. Dillon isn't quoting what the judge said to all parties in an open setting? You don't. And you make a ridiculous conclusion because your bias is against Kiraly and Dhillon?"

Not biased against Kiraly and Dhillon...and not part of this scandal in any way. I don't live in Menlo Park, and am not involved in any of their politics. The judge conducted a settlement conference. It's not an open setting.

Posted by Gloria, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Apr 9, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Some folks need to run for City Council so that plaintiff's wife, Kirsten Keith, and the other high rise development and congestion advocates on the Council are replaced before Menlo Park becomes Menlo Metropolis.

Posted by Voting Record, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 9, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Gloria, you must know that Keith is the only current council member that have ever served on the Menlo Park Planning Commission, where she served for seven years. If Keith is a "high rise development and congestion advocate" as you have proposed, her voting record would support your accusation, which it does not. If you can remember all the way back to the 2010 election cycle, Keith was the only planning commissioner with multiple quotes on any mailer produces by the No on T campaign, because she asked great question, on the record, from the dias.

Posted by Whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:05 am

Voting Record,

Keith endorsed Bohannon's Measure T and was his literature to promote voters to vote for her. No matter how you slice it, Keith talks out of both sides of her mouth. Her "voting record" shows that she is unprincipled, unethical, and unsophisticated. she will only do what's best for her political career-- or what's left of it after her husband's ridiculous lawsuit for something he probably did! Menlo Park voters would do well to boot her (and her husband) out of office!

Posted by remedy, a resident of another community
on Apr 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Whatever, you clearly have hurt feelings. You should speak your mind at the next council meeting and demand a hug from Nutty the Squirrel.

Posted by Whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm


My feelings are not hurt whatsoever. It's a fact that Kirsten Keith wants to advance politically. To me, she, as an elected official, is not a good one because she is unprincipled, unethical, and unsophisticated. She should not be re-elected. That's my opinion, but that doesn't mean my feelings are "hurt." Why would you conclude something like that?

[Portion removed; keep it civil]

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