UNM English professor Sharon Warner is filing for a mistrial in her $1.5 million court case against the University.
Warner, who lost a breach of contract lawsuit against UNM in March, requested a new trial and a new jury to hear the case, following what her legal counsel is calling improper communication between the bailiff and the jurors. Warner and UNM’s legal counsel submitted the final documents regarding the mistrial to District Court Judge Sarah Singleton Monday. Singleton is considering whether to grant a new trial.
Warner filed the original complaint in September 2009, following what her lawyer alleges was retaliatory behavior by UNM against Warner after she registered a complaint about alleged sexual harassment of students in the English department.
Warner filed an Office of Equal Opportunity complaint after she received an anonymous letter about UNM creative writing professor Lisa D. Chávez, which claimed Chávez was sexually harassing students.
The authors claimed to be parents of a UNM student and the letter included pictures of Chávez posing as a “dominatrix professor” disciplining “misbehaving students,” according to the lawsuit.
In 2008, Chávez was discovered to be an operator at local phone-sex company People Exchanging Power. She worked under the name “Mistress Jade.” According to the People Exchanging Power website, Mistress Jade could act as “a biker bitch, an imperious goddess or a stern teacher ready to punish unruly students.” In one photo, she posed with then-graduate student Liz Derrington.
Following an investigation, UNM did not find Chávez guilty of any wrongdoing. She remains a teacher at UNM.
Legal fees are mounting as the case continues. According to her records, Warner has spent about $200,000 on the case, and in late March New Mexico Risk Management documents indicate the total cost spent on behalf of UNM amounted to about $170,000.
Under New Mexico law, which requires the losing party in a civil case to cover some trial-related fees, Warner estimates she will be required to pay between $15,000 and $20,000 in additional legal fees to compensate UNM for court costs if the motion for mistrial is not granted. These fees include subpoena costs and expert witness costs, among others.
But Sharon Warner’s husband, Teddy Warner, said the total cost of the case is much greater.
“I’m not exaggerating here, it may sound exaggerated … Sharon and I, when thinking about this, would estimate that it has cost Sharon over the past four and a half years, about 4,000 to 5,000 hours of time,” he said. “She has probably spent 15 to 20 hours a week on average, and some weeks she spent 30 to 40 hours. She still did her job full time, but she is a novelist and a short-story writer. Think about how many stories she could have written in that time.”
Teddy Warner, a professor at UNM Health Sciences Center, also filed a lawsuit in 2009 claiming the University cut his pay by 20 percent in spousal affiliated retaliation. Teddy Warner’s case will commence after the resolution of Sharon Warner’s request for mistrial.
UNM legal counsel stated all proper documents relating to the mistrial have been submitted, but declined to comment further.
Sharon Warner said UNM has unfairly characterized her as a “money grabber.”
“The thing that really upsets me about this is that UNM tried to paint me as someone who wanted to make a lot of money, and nothing could be further from the truth, I was just trying to get them to uphold their policies,” she said.
In an October 2008 mediation between UNM and Sharon Warner prior to the 2009 lawsuit, Warner did not request any financial compensation. But by the final mediation negotiation in November 2010, Sharon Warner requested $150,000, according to mediation documents, which UNM declined. Sharon Warner said UNM offered her $20,000 shortly before the case went to trial, but said she declined because it would not have even covered the legal fees she had accrued by that point. In the court case that ended in March, Warned requested $1.5 million, but lost.
But Warner said she may have had at least partial success in changing University policy. She said she believes the creation of UNM’s current sexual harassment policies and programs was shaped by her lawsuit. Following Sharon Warner’s original complaint in 2008, UNM instituted online sexual harassment training that is now required for faculty and staff.