Sexual Assault Survivors In Austin-Travis County Class-Action Lawsuit File Appeal

Aug 10, 2020

Attorneys representing eight sexual assault survivors are appealing a federal court's decision to dismiss a class-action lawsuit alleging Austin and Travis County officials mishandled the survivors' cases. 

Federal Judge Lee Yeakel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District threw out the case in February – nearly two years after the lawsuit was first filed in June 2018

Plaintiffs had argued the city and county defendants – including Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and outgoing Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore – mishandled sexual assault cases because of gender discrimination. But Yeakel ruled there was not enough evidence to prove there was a conspiracy. 

Attorneys for the survivors argue the judge never gave their clients an opportunity to address what he ruled was wrong with the complaint. 

“I think the [plaintiffs] expected to have another opportunity, based on how federal courts work generally,” said Jennifer Ecklund, a lawyer at Thompson Coburn LLP, the law firm representing the plaintiffs. 

“The City will respond to the recently filed brief next month," a city spokesperson said in a statement. "In the meantime, the City continues to move forward with its commitment to improve the criminal justice process for cases involving allegations of sexual assault.”

The Travis County District Attorney's Office said it could not comment on pending litigation.

Typically in a motion to dismiss, courts will allow plaintiffs to file a new complaint to address deficiencies laid out in the original case. Instead, Ecklund says, the judge declined to hear the majority of the claims laid out in the lawsuit, citing an abstention doctrine. This is when a court refuses to hear a case because the court believes it could be in conflict with another court. 

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Yeakel argued federal involvement could hinder the state’s interest, pointing to new Texas laws and municipal initiatives around the crime of sexual assault. State lawmakers added more than $75 million to their budget in 2019 toward these initiatives, including nearly $60 million to build a new crime lab to address the backlog in testing rape evidence kits. The Austin City Council is also moving forward with an independent review of how Austin police investigate hundreds of sexual assault cases. 

"The passage of the new laws indicates a strong statewide interest in changing the current manner in which municipalities, law enforcement, and prosecutors address sexual assaults in Texas,” Yeakel said in his ruling. 

Ecklund has asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the ruling. She argues the state’s initiatives do not interfere with her clients' fight for their constitutional rights. 

“In any number of other kinds of cases, a state policy interest may be involved, while at the same time constitutional rights are still heard by the courts,” she said. “Whether it’s in the abortion sphere or the school desegregation sphere, it’s frequent that these interests come into play with one another.”

Ecklund and her team don’t believe moving forward with the federal lawsuit would hinder any state initiatives.

“We’re arguing that the system needs to account for any discrimination that may be inherent in their processes, and, presumably, the state interest is in protecting victims and ensuring law enforcement does result in justice,” she said. “From where we sit, those two things are in harmony – not in conflict.”

This story has been updated. 

Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at nhamdan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.

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