Almanac

News - April 16, 2014

Judge delays trial in defamation lawsuit

Woodell, two defendants told they must try to settle

by Sandy Brundage

Will nine months be enough time to settle a defamation lawsuit revolving around campaign sign shenanigans? The defendants, along with a San Mateo County judge, seem to hope so.

The delay came at the last minute, on the morning of a trial scheduled to start April 7 after two years of countersuits and depositions.

"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 canceled because the field was too wet to use," said Chuck Bernstein in response to the lengthy delay, the latest twist in the defamation lawsuit filed against him and fellow Menlo Park Fire Protection District 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 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.

With everyone ready to go to trial, Mr. Woodell's counsel filed a last-minute motion under seal asking for a continuance.

Judge Robert Foiles, after several hours, rescheduled the trial for Jan. 26, 2015, and ordered the parties to once again attempt to settle the case. A request to reopen discovery was denied.

Mr. Woodell agreed the week before the trial 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 media 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.

He is also contesting the validity of the settlement in light of the public disclosure, according to court records.

The motion for a continuance 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 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," said Menlo Park resident Brielle Johnck, who endorsed Ms. Kiraly during the campaign. "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."

"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."

A settlement conference has been scheduled for Jan. 9.

Comments

Posted by Perry Mason, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 16, 2014 at 7:23 am

One interesting point of the story is:

"A request to reopen discovery was denied."

Now Menlo Park residents don't have to worry about being served with frivolous subpoenas for depositions for this 3-ring circus thus saving us from having to take time off work, not to mention expensive attorney fees @ $550/hour.

Thank you Judge Robert Foiles. You are an honorable public servant.


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