Fight begins over campaign sign suit
During the 2011 election cycle, a mystery: A campaign sign uprooted from Chuck Bernstein's front yard. A cellphone dropped nearby, reported to the Menlo Park police. A phone that, according to Mr. Bernstein, showed messages tagged with "Woodell" scrolling by in the upper corner of the screen.
The campaign sign belonged to Virginia Chang Kiraly, then seeking election to the board of directors for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
Eventually John Woodell denied vandalizing the sign, saying he would never do such a thing and that his phone had been lost hours after the sign vanished into the bushes.
And now: A lawsuit filed by Mr. Woodell against Mr. Bernstein and Ms. Chang Kiraly and unidentified parties Does 1-100 for defamation and conspiracy for their alleged comments regarding the incident.
The Oct. 11 filing alleges in part that "Before making those statements to third parties, including the police and the media, BERNSTEIN and DOES 1-20 never spoke to Plaintiff about the situation though he knew the PHONE belonged to him or someone related to him and they were neighbors.
"Starting on or around October 17, 2011 and continuing, Defendant KIRALY and DOES 1 -20 made comments to individuals, other than Plaintiff, claiming that Plaintiff John Woodell stole her campaign signs from all around Menlo Park."
The involved parties didn't have much to say. Mr. Woodell had no comment, and the defendants said they weren't aware of the lawsuit until the Almanac called on Nov. 13. Six days later, only Ms. Chang Kiraly had been served with papers; Mr. Bernstein was still waiting.
"I will just reiterate that I never said anything publicly to disparage John Woodell except to state the facts as I knew them. I do not know what happened and I have always said that I did not know what happened," Mr. Bernstein said.
Mayor Kirsten Keith, an attorney, is not representing Mr. Woodell, her husband. He retained Seth Rosenberg of Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco; the lawsuit seeks damages and attorney fees. A case management conference is scheduled for March 21.
"We are pursuing this lawsuit, like all of our lawsuits, to try and vindicate the rights of those who have been unfairly wronged," Mr. Rosenberg said. "The evidence will speak for itself in the judicial system."
Ms. Chang Kiraly referred questions to her attorney, Harmeet Dhillon, who said she's counseled a lot of people in the plaintiff's position to not file a lawsuit. "You're rehashing something people may have forgotten."
Asked whether the lack of supporting evidence cited in the filing was unusual, Ms. Dhillon said that it was "a glaring defect in the complaint. As a lawyer who handles defamation matters — there are certain types of lawsuits you can file that are bare bones like this, and defamation is not one of them."
Defamation requires "great specificity — who said what to whom and where and when."
Mr. Woodell's complaint, on the other hand, is "fatally defective," Ms. Dhillon said.
Drawing upon years of experience with defamation law, including service on the American Civil Liberties Union board of directors, Ms. Dhillon said that California is a state that takes First Amendment rights, particularly in regards to politics, very seriously. "And this is political speech about a political campaign by the people involved in the campaign."
Mr. Woodell's public political participation and standing as an elected member of the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee makes him a public figure, according to Ms. Dhillon, meaning that the bar for proving defamation is set even higher — the plaintiff must prove actual malice.
"I am very confident that this case will not proceed as is, if at all," she said.
Mr. Woodell's attorney did not immediately respond when asked about not including specific support for the allegations in the complaint.