Judge upholds settlement in Menlo Park fire director defamation lawsuit

Ruling states John Woodell must abide by agreement with Virginia Kiraly

A judge has denied a request to nullify a settlement agreement reached in a defamation countersuit by Menlo Park Fire Protection District board director Virginia Chang Kiraly against John Woodell.

In March, Mr. Woodell, husband of Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, agreed to pay $5,000.01 to Ms. Kiraly if she dismissed her lawsuit against him, according to court documents.

But after Ms. Kiraly filed her acceptance of the offer with the court, Mr. Woodell's attorney asked that the agreement be voided on grounds that she'd breached confidentiality because the filing was open to the public.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak ruled on Monday, July 7, that "there was no term in the offer of compromise requiring either that the parties fail to comply with the mandatory provision (to file the agreement with the court), or requiring that any such filing be done under seal."

Moreover, while the parties had agreed on confidentiality for certain information obtained during discovery, such as employment records, that "by its very language ... was never intended to pertain to motions of offers of compromise," the judge wrote.

Attorney Seth Rosenberg, who represents Mr. Woodell, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Woodell filed his defamation lawsuit in 2012, alleging Ms. Kiraly and Chuck Bernstein, now also on the fire board, told people that he'd vandalized campaign signs during the 2011 fire board election. Mr. Bernstein said he'd found an uprooted Kiraly campaign sign in his yard lying next to a cellphone that turned out to be Mr. Woodell's. Mr. Woodell denied vandalizing the sign.

Ms. Kiraly then filed the countersuit 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 court filings that she never had the cellphone in her possession.

In May, Judge Novak dismissed Mr. Woodell's lawsuit on grounds that he deliberately destroyed key cellphone evidence in the case before the defendants could examine his phone. He has appealed the dismissal.


Posted by phew, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 9, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Please let this be done. This has been a painful and senseless issue to watch. Lots of money and time spent on a playground squabble that should never have entered the legal system.

Posted by Befuddled, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 9, 2014 at 1:01 pm

The settlement was marked confidential then the judge says just because a document is marked confidential it does not mean that it is. This clearly does not make sense. The judge should not have upheld the settlement since the terms of the settlement were clearly violated.

Posted by k2w, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 9, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Dear Befuddled. Apparently you are indeed. The quote in the article is clear: "there was no term in the offer of compromise requiring either that the parties fail to comply with the mandatory provision (to file the agreement with the court), or requiring that any such filing be done under seal." SO, neither party could divulge the terms of the settlement. But a sloppy bit of drafting made the settlement be filed with the court, and therefore, made public. Look to the lawyer who drafted it if you do not like the result.

Posted by ethics, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 9, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Confidentiality in Settlement Agreements Is a Virtual Necessity
Web Link

Posted by 50-50, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm

In a community property state isn't Council Member Kirsten Keith obligated for 1/2 of that settlement?
That should be listed on her Form 700. As well as any other settlements or awards in these foolish cases.

Posted by Common Sense, a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Dear 50/50, that may be the case if Mr. Woodell and Mrs. Keith were the ones receiving the settlement money, but in this case they are the ones paying. Mr. Woodell was ordered to pay Mrs. Kiraly $5,000.01 to settle her counter suit. Mr. Woodell lost his law suit last month!

Posted by SteveC, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 9, 2014 at 6:53 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

Keith has nothing to do with this. Woodell is the one suing. Not Keith. Husband/wife has nothing to do with this. Keith did not sue anyone!!!

Posted by other way around, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 9, 2014 at 7:49 pm

SteveC, this article is about a settlement agreement. Kiraly is the one suing, and Woodell agreed to settle, not the other way around.

Posted by phew, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 9, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Other way around....Woodell started this whole thing. He sued first for defamation, then of course thru the process defamed others, so they sued back. It's crazy. Woodell is the first to start the insanity. No sympathy for suing in this case from the start. The initial filing was a disproportionate reaction to a low level event.

Posted by Crazy!, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 10, 2014 at 12:34 am

Phew is right... Woodell started this whole mess. He defamed Kiraly, and a judge ruled that she could win on her lawsuit. This was after he intentionally destroyed evidence that would not allow a fair trial for those he was suing! How crazy is that??? It was Woodell who gave Kiraly a settlement offer, thereby admitting that he did defame. Kiraly just accepted the offer given to her by Woodell. It seems that if anyone wants this lawsuit to be over with, it is Kiraly- not Woodell. It's as if he and his wife, Kirsten Keith, are fighting against the San Mateo County Superior Court system. Crazy!

SteveC: Keith is an attorney. I would think she would be advising her husband throughout his ridiculous and frivolous lawsuit. As far as I'm concerned, they are in this lawsuit together. But, I guess, you have to start spinning things to make her like she wasn't involved in her husband's mess since she is running for re-election to the MP City Council this fall. I doubt anyone believes she was an innocent bystander.

Posted by Sarah , a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 10, 2014 at 8:24 am

At some point in time, there needs to be a gracious loser. Mr. Woodell is anything but a gracious loser. Clearly he's gone past the point of being a sore loser., and he's well on his way to being irrational and a bit of a freak. The handbrake is off and he's on a roll. As for Ms. Keith, she might want to seriously consider taking a firm hold of her husband, shoving him behind her, stepping forward and being the gracious loser. Otherwise she is likely to be, as the teenagers of today say, "shipped with a freak".

Posted by My two cents, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 10, 2014 at 9:35 am

@phew: "The initial filing was a disproportionate reaction to a low-level event." Agreed. What we don't know, since settlement discussions are confidential, is whether Kiraly and Bernstein resisted efforts to settle it on the basis of it being a low-level event. It wasn't a zero-level event.

@Crazy: "It was Woodell who gave Kiraly a settlement offer, thereby admitting that he did defame." I think you are making Woodell's point for him on the confidentiality of settlement, since it's exactly this type of statement that provides the rationale for settlement discussions and settlements being confidential. Offering a settlement, particularly one for this amount, is not technically an admission of guilt, nor practically in many circumstances. It can be related to the cost of defense, prioritizing resources in other directions (e.g., Woodell's case-in-chief, etc.).

This being said, I do agree with the judge's decision on the settlement. This was not handled well by Woodell's attorney. He should have put confidentiality and the requirement to file the response under seal as a term of the settlement. Two minutes of work on the word processor to make that crystal clear. The notation of "Confidential" pursuant to the protective order really wasn't enough in this circumstance. And when Kiraly's attorney filed it publicly, they should have asked her to refile under seal to correct the problem, rather than blowing up the settlement. If she refused, he had a decent chance (at least better than how they did play this) to get some sanctions on the protective order, and for the judge to seal the filing.

Where I do disagree with the judge is the terminating sanction, and think that has a decent chance of being reversed on appeal. There were other remedies available to make the defendants whole, such as performing the necessary tests to on a stock Android phone with the software Woodell had loaded to see if the screen saver displayed as noted. Woodell could have been barred from challenging the results on the basis that his phone behaved differently, and could have been ordered to pay for that exercise.

Posted by gracious, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

Gracious: courteous, kind, and pleasant. Good advice that everyone should follow.

Anonymous users have been using this forum to post thinly veiled threats of blackmail since long before the scandal over Kiraly's felled sign. The only thing that has changed is the new low standard for what constitutes defamation of an elected official.

Posted by bizarre, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 11, 2014 at 9:14 pm

You should always question these stories, "The vehicle's front license plate, however, was stuck in a bush at the point of impact. Viegas' wallet with his identification was also found there, on the ground." (Web Link). There are two possibilities. This guy is either the most unlucky person in the world, or somebody wanted him shipped off.

This Fireboard sign case is a bit more suspect. First of all, since when has anyone cared about the FIreboard? The two individuals providing information first about the "moved sign" (scene of crime) and later the "stolen signs" elsewhere, have both now elected to this board. When you watch other news stories about stolen signs, there is usually more evidence, like video of a person stealing a sign (Web Link)

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