Almanac

News - June 11, 2014

Menlo Park: Dismissal of defamation lawsuit may be appealed

by Sandy Brundage

Once all the legal maneuvering is over, this may wind up being the most expensive campaign sign in history: John Woodell has filed a court notice that he intends to appeal a judge's dismissal of the defamation lawsuit he brought against two Menlo Park fire board directors.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak tossed the suit in May on the grounds that Mr. Woodell deliberately destroyed key cellphone evidence in the case.

The lawsuit, filed nearly two years ago, relates to a Virginia Chang Kiraly campaign sign found uprooted during the 2011 Menlo Park Fire Protection District board race. Chuck Bernstein said he'd found the sign in his yard lying next to a cellphone that turned out to belong to Mr. Woodell.

Mr. Woodell, married to Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who is up for re-election this year, alleged that the defendants spread rumors that he'd vandalized that sign and others. He said he would never do such a thing.

In the notice filed on June 5, Mr. Woodell's counsel, which now includes an attorney specializing in appeals, argued that the judge's dismissal of his lawsuit was against the law, and that procedural irregularity and legal error as well as an abuse of discretion violated his right to a fair trial.

Seth Rosenberg, lead attorney for Mr. Woodell, was not available for comment by the Almanac's deadline.

According to Harmeet Dhillon, who represents Ms. Kiraly, her client has already spent more than $230,000 on legal expenses. The defendants filed requests that the plaintiff pay approximately $50,000 in court fees as a result of the dismissal at the same time that Mr. Woodell submitted his notice that he intends to appeal.

Ms. Dhillon said the notice may be an attempt to delay the final resolution of the case, given that the dismissal mandates that the plaintiff pay the court costs. She said she expects the judge's "thorough, well-reasoned" ruling to be upheld on appeal.

"A judge has the right under the civil procedure code to mete out this remedy when a litigant's behavior has been as egregious, and as damaging to the other side as John Woodell's in destroying critical evidence after he planned to file a lawsuit, hiding the fact that the evidence had been destroyed for well over a year, and giving several different and contradictory explanations for his behavior," Ms. Dhillon said. "A result is not improper (or beyond the court's authority) just because the loser doesn't like it."

Mr. Bernstein said he was just waiting to see what happens. "The notice could simply be a 'warning,' meant perhaps to encourage us not to proceed with collecting the costs to which we are entitled," he told the Almanac.

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