Almanac

News - April 9, 2014

Defamation suit brought by fire board director settled

Lawsuit brought against fire board director by John Woodell still scheduled for trial

by Sandy Brundage

Six days before the trial in one defamation case was 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 Menlo Park Fire Protection District board member 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 was scheduled to start Monday, April 7, but hit a last-minute speed bump in the form of a motion for continuance filed under seal the same morning on behalf of Mr. Woodell.

The public portion of the court record indicates that the plaintiff said he was not ready for trial and wanted to reopen discovery. The defendants opposed the request for a delay. The judge's decision was not issued before the Almanac's press time. Check AlmanacNews.com for an update on the judge's ruling.

Although the settlement 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 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 defendants 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. In an email dated Oct. 17, 2011, Mr. Bernstein informed Ms. Kiraly that he had found what appeared to be Mr. Woodell's cellphone. He asked whether she would like a scandal that would make the front page, or whether she would rather forget the whole thing.

Based on court documents, Ms. Kiraly replied by email that he should go to the police, said she didn't want to forget the matter, and wondered whether to call the Daily Post.

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