Almanac

News - July 3, 2013

Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit against John Woodell

• The court grants an anti-SLAPP motion in Chuck Bernstein's lawsuit.

by Sandy Brundage

A duel of defamation lawsuits left one standing after a San Mateo County judge ruled in favor of dismissing the claim filed against Menlo Park resident John Woodell.

Mr. Woodell, husband of Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, sued fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly and resident Chuck Bernstein last October, alleging that the pair told the media, police and others that he'd stolen campaign signs during the 2011 fire board election. Both defendants denied doing so.

All parties agree that someone uprooted Ms. Chang Kiraly's campaign sign from Mr. Bernstein's yard. He later found the sign tossed into the bushes, lying near Mr. Woodell's cellphone, which was turned in to police.

Mr. Woodell denied vandalizing the sign. A court filing states that the plaintiff may have dropped his phone while walking the dog in the neighborhood where both the Woodells and Bernsteins live.

Mr. Bernstein then filed a suit accusing Mr. Woodell of knowingly making false statements to Henry Riggs and Mickie Winkler, among other people, that Mr. Bernstein had stolen the phone or lied about how he found it.

Mr. Woodell then filed a motion to dismiss, under California's anti-SLAPP law, which prohibits lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of intimidation and limiting free speech.

Judge Gerald Buchwald agreed with the dismissal, finding that Mr. Bernstein submitted no admissible evidence, according to the June 24 ruling.

Mr. Bernstein told the Almanac that he didn't think it was appropriate to ask Mr. Riggs or Ms. Winkler to submit "one-sided statements" in support of his defamation suit because they were friends of both himself and Mr. Woodell.

A motion by Ms. Chang Kiraly to dismiss the original lawsuit was denied, raising the question of why things turned out differently for her co-defendant.

"Unquestionably, the lack of any admissible evidence of my client making any sort of defamatory statement was the key difference," said attorney Seth Rosenberg, who represents Mr. Woodell.

Upon winning an anti-SLAPP motion in California, the party who made the motion for dismissal is automatically entitled to have their court costs paid by the other party, although judges have discretion over how much money to award.

Mr. Bernstein described the judge as suggesting that asking for fees in this case, however, would not be looked upon favorably as the case was "odd."

The opposing attorney, Mr. Rosenberg, came away with quite a different perception. Asked whether the judge had said he was not in favor of awarding fees, the attorney said: "Not at all. He actually said that he understood that granting fees was mandatory, but that he has discretion to determine what is reasonable, which is all true. The judge and I then had a brief conversation on what factors could and should be considered regarding reasonableness, but that will all be fleshed out in our fees and costs request."

Mr. Rosenberg said he wasn't sure yet how much he'd be asking for, but that the anti-SLAPP motion entailed "quite a bit of work."

The original defamation lawsuit brought against Ms. Chang Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein is scheduled this fall for settlement conferences and a possible jury trial.

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