Almanac

News - March 13, 2013

Menlo Park: Judge rules defamation suit will proceed

by Sandy Brundage

The defamation lawsuit filed against a Menlo Park fire board director will proceed, according to a court ruling. San Mateo Superior Court Judge Raymond Swope ruled against dismissing the suit on March 8.

The judge also decided that plaintiff John Woodell, husband of Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, was not a public figure.

Mr. Woodell sued fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly and city resident Chuck Bernstein in October, alleging the pair told the news media, police and others that he vandalized campaign signs during the 2011 fire board election.

All parties agree that Ms. Chang Kiraly's campaign sign was mysteriously uprooted from Mr. Bernstein's yard and later found in some bushes, lying near Mr. Woodell's cellphone.

Mr. Woodell denied vandalizing the sign. He speculated that he lost his phone while walking the dog, according to court documents.

Seth Rosenberg of the law firm Minami Tamaki LLP, representing the plaintiff, said the recent hearing went well.

"The court confirmed that the Ms. Kiraly's statements made against Mr. Woodell were not protected speech, Mr. Woodell was not a public figure, and that Mr. Woodell already has enough evidence to prevail against Ms. Kiraly. Hopefully, we can now move this case along."

According to Mr. Rosenberg's filings, for the purpose of the hearing, the court did not evaluate the strength of the evidence, but instead accepted "as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff."

His objection to the order to dismiss included a declaration from firefighter John Wurdinger saying that the fire board director told him that "everyone knows that John Woodell is going around town vandalizing my signs."

Ms. Kiraly has denied making such comments.

In regard to the judge's ruling, attorney Harmeet Dhillon, representing the fire board director, said, "How can you not be a public figure in a political dispute?"

She cited Mr. Woodell's position as an officer of the Menlo Democrats club, participation in the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee, and volunteer work for another candidate's campaign during the fire board election.

She said Judge Swope also urged all counsel to take a hard look at the lawsuit, as a way of indicating that, in the attorney's words, "this is not a case that should be going to court."

Ms. Chang Kiraly has approximately 10 days to appeal the ruling. According to her attorney, they are still considering whether to do so. "I think she wants to clear her name and move on," Ms. Dhillon said. "That means taking depositions and going to trial."

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