Woman loses latest round of litigation with Shepherd University

By Nathan Bass | Jan 31, 2013

CHARLESTON – In a memorandum decision filed Jan. 25, the state Supreme Court affirmed the Circuit Court of Jefferson County’s dismissal of a civil action against Shepherd University filed by Sharon Mueller, who has a long history of litigation against the university.

CHARLESTON – In a memorandum decision filed Jan. 25, the state Supreme Court affirmed the Circuit Court of Jefferson County’s dismissal of a civil action against Shepherd University filed by Sharon Mueller, who has a long history of litigation against the university.

The court also affirmed the circuit court’s assessment of a fine and attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.

In 2004, Mueller and Shepherd College, now Shepherd University, entered into a settlement agreement in which the university agreed to pay Mueller $3,000 “to fully compromise and settle their claims” regarding four civil actions Mueller had filed against the university and other state education entities.

As part of the agreement, Mueller agreed she would not come on campus except to attend public events held in specific venues and that she would “not talk with or call on the telephone” numerous university employees and officials.

“Notwithstanding the parties’ settlement, petitioner has continued to file civil actions against Shepherd and its officials. For example, in Sharon Mueller v. Shepherd University Board of Governors, No. 11-0567 (W.Va. Supreme Court November 20, 2012), this Court recently affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of an action filed by petitioner on the ground that it was barred by the doctrine of res judicata when the settlement agreement the parties reached in 03-C-266, specifying the Shepherd University buildings petitioner would be allowed to enter into to attend public events, did not include the recently built Shepherd Wellness Center,” the opinion states.

In this case, Mueller had filed a civil action against the university, alleging that it was “threatening and intimidating her in an attempt to silence her.” She sought to speak with the Shepherd University Police Department concerning her allegations that the university had falsified documents in prior legal proceedings.

The university responded to the complaint with a motion to dismiss and to grant sanctions against Mueller, who was representing herself in the proceedings. The circuit court granted, with prejudice, the motion to dismiss and ordered Mueller to pay a $1,000 fine and the university’s attorney’s fees and costs in the amount of $5,338.60.

Mueller appealed the circuit court order to the state’s high court.

“Three elements must be satisfied before the prosecution of a lawsuit may be barred on the basis of res judicata: (1) there must have been a final adjudication on the merits in the first proceeding; (2) the second proceeding must involve the same parties, or persons in privity with those same parties, as the first proceeding; and (3) the cause of action in the second proceeding must be identical to the cause of action determined in the first proceeding or must be such that it could have been resolved, had it been presented, in the first proceeding," the opinion says.

“Petitioner does not directly respond to the circuit court’s ruling that her present action is barred on the basis of res judicata, but asks that this Court grant her permission to speak to the Shepherd University Police Department concerning inconsistencies between certain documents. Petitioner suggests that respondent has been obstructing her attempt to do this for the purposes of running out the time to conduct any type of investigation.

“Respondent argues that the circuit court concluded that petitioner’s claims in the present action were resolved by the 2004 settlement agreement and barred by the doctrine of res judicata, and that petitioner has presented no evidence or legal authority that the circuit court’s conclusion was either erroneous or improper.

“After careful consideration, this Court concludes that the circuit court properly determined that all three elements of res judicata were satisfied in the case sub judice.”

The court then looked at the assessment of sanctions by the circuit court.

“A court may order payment by an attorney to a prevailing party, reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred as the result of his or her vexatious, wanton, or oppressive assertion of a claim or a defense that cannot be supported by a good faith argument for the application, extension, modification, or reversal of existing law," the opinion says.

“Petitioner notes that the relief she sought in the present action was non-monetary in nature. Petitioner also suggests that the retention of outside counsel to represent respondent could have been unlawful. Petitioner argues that each party should be ordered to pay his or her own expenses.

“Respondent argues that because petitioner did not raise the issue of outside counsel in the circuit court, this Court should decline to address it now. Respondent asserts that petitioner has persisted in pursuing vexatious litigation against the same parties under the same theories over the course of seven years and several lawsuits. Respondent argues that the circuit court committed no reversible error in granting his motion for Rule 11 sanctions.

“After careful consideration of the parties’ arguments, the circuit court’s Sept. 1, 2011 order, and the record, this Court concludes that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in granting respondent’s motion for Rule 11 sanctions.

“For the foregoing reasons, we find no error in the decision of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County. The circuit court’s dismissal of petitioner’s present action on the basis of res judicata, and the court’s sanctioning of petitioner in the total amount of $6,338.60, are both affirmed.”

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