John Woodell's defamation lawsuit against two Menlo Park fire board directors has been dismissed, despite his argument for lesser sanctions, with the court finding that he deliberately deleted cellphone data.
The lawsuit, filed nearly two years ago, related to an uprooted Virginia Chang Kiraly campaign sign 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, alleged that the defendants spread rumors that he'd vandalized that sign and others, and denied that he was responsible.
Given that the cellphone is a key piece of evidence in the case, Ms. Kiraly filed a motion in April asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that Mr. Woodell destroyed evidence by deleting the contents of his cellphone before they were able to thoroughly examine it.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak issued her final ruling on the matter on Thursday (May 22) after hearing arguments earlier in the week as to why the case should not be thrown out.
"Forcing the Defendants to continue to defend an action for which they have been denied potentially exculpatory evidence by the willful destruction by the Plaintiff is patently unjust," Judge Novak wrote.
"The Court cannot ignore the destruction of evidence, including in anticipation of litigation, particularly when the probative value of that evidence is so heavily connected to the ultimate ability of the Defense to seek and receive a fair trial."
Far from being the "unsophisticated phone user" as his attorney claimed, the judge said a review of the evidence proved that Mr. Woodell was anything but, given his former position at Google. In addition, the plaintiff had given different explanations as to why the phone had been wiped under penalty of perjury.
The judge dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning that Mr. Woodell cannot refile the case. He does have 60 days to appeal the decision.
Everyone involved has paid a heavy price in both public opinion and legal costs. According to Harmeet Dhillon, who represents Ms. Kiraly, her client has spent more than $230,000 on related expenses, only a small portion of which would be recoverable without filing a lawsuit against Mr. Woodell for malicious prosecution.
"At a time when the courts are filled with people struggling to survive and seeking justice in serious cases, Mr. Woodell wasted a tremendous amount of court and litigant time after painting himself as the victim in this imaginary dispute. The real victims here are Ms. Kiraly, whose sign was tampered with, Mr. Bernstein, whose property was trespassed upon, and the taxpayers, whose resources were usurped by a baseless lawsuit," Ms. Dhillon said, adding that she hopes the suit doesn't discourage people from exercising free speech and participating fully in elections.
Mr. Bernstein, who represented himself through most of the proceedings, said the ruling to dismiss the lawsuit was very good news, but that there was nothing to celebrate.
"No one 'won' anything, but all of us -- including uninvolved taxpayers -- lost something. Though the case resulted in grief and injury to me, I still feel badly for my neighbor, John Woodell, and, indirectly, his family. I sincerely hope he will continue to contribute his time and skills to our community."
Mr. Bernstein said that he had told the truth about every aspect of the case and thought the judge's ruling strongly supported the defendants' position. "Nevertheless, I was surprised before, when the case was filed, so I don't want to assume that there will not be an appeal."
Mr. Woodell's counsel, Seth Rosenberg, had argued in court that the phone was wiped in accordance with Google's employee exit policy and also because it was malfunctioning. He told the Almanac that all options will be considered in light of the dismissal. "We do not believe that Mr. Woodell ever attempted to do anything improper and, at most, lesser sanctions should have been granted."
A few issues remain to be decided by the court, including a settlement agreement between Mr. Woodell and Ms. Kiraly in the defamation countersuit she filed against him, and his request to file certain documents under seal.
At least one person who was subpoenaed to testify at trial shared the defendants' relief that the ordeal may be over. Brielle Johnck, who endorsed Ms. Kiraly during the fire board election, said she hoped Mr. Woodell and his wife now find closure.
"Menlo Park residents deserve a rest from this embarrassing episode that started with a lawn sign and ended with a grave dismissal with prejudice."