Federal Judge Dismisses Local Sexual Assault Survivors’ Lawsuit

Yeakel cites progress by Lege in rejecting claims against APD, D.A.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel has dismissed the sexual assault class action lawsuit filed by eight local rape survivors against the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

The long-awaited decision was delivered Monday, Feb. 10, in a 32-page ruling in which Yeakel declined to take up the majority of claims put forth in the survivors’ lawsuit, therefore closing the case in his court but leaving space for the women to possibly refile the bulk of their case in a different court.

The survivors’ suit, originally filed in June 2018 by three local women and amended that August with five additional plaintiffs, argued that systemic failures within the local criminal justice system have led to inequitable treatment of women survivors based on their gender, thereby violating their constitutional rights. Along with the city and county entities, Travis County D.A. Margaret Moore and her predecessor Rosemary Lehmberg were named individually as defendants in the suit, as were Austin police Chief Brian Manley and his predecessor Art Acevedo. Yeakel heard the defendants’ motions to dismiss in December 2018, but writes that he waited to rule on the case until the 86th Texas Legislature ended its session in May 2019, “in order to have the benefit of any action by the Legislature on the issues presented here.”

Indeed, the Legislature did pass several bills last session to improve how sexual assault is investigated, prosecuted, and responded to across Texas – including the creation of a statewide Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force and $78 million in funding to expedite rape kit testing. In his decision, Yeakel also cites City Council’s unanimous vote in January 2019 to have a third party conduct a comprehensive evaluation of how APD investigates sexual assaults. Over the summer, the defendants argued that in light of new state laws and the external audit, “the court should defer to Texas’ legislative power and the city’s municipal power and decline to exercise jurisdiction based on federal-abstention doctrines.”

Yeakel, considering the motion to dismiss on grounds of “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state claims for which relief may be granted,” ultimately dismissed with prejudice (that is, permanently) six of the plaintiffs’ claims, including one specific to the individual case of Amy Smith (a pseudonym). Smith, who was kidnapped and raped in 2008, submitted to a rape kit, but a major DNA testing contamination at APD’s now-shuttered forensics lab led officers to question her “truthfulness”; her attacker later fled to Houston, where he raped at least two other women before getting arrested again. He’s never faced a trial in Austin, and the suit claims Moore dismissed local charges in 2017, telling Smith he’d “get justice in Houston.”

For the majority of these six claims – including whether the D.A.’s Office acted improperly when deciding how to prosecute sexual assaults – Yeakel’s dismissal hinges on the D.A.’s prosecutorial immunity and 11th Amendment immunity, noting that “contrary to Plaintiffs' contentions, prosecutorial immunity, which is an absolute immunity, extends beyond the courtroom.” Several claims were dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim “for which relief may be granted.”

Three additional claims – including the survivors’ argument that APD and the D.A.’s Office violated their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by not testing (often for years) the rape kits submitted by victims or using them to identify, apprehend, and prosecute their attackers – were dismissed without prejudice (meaning the claims can be brought back, perhaps in state district court). On the survivors’ remaining claims, Yeakel opted for “federal abstention” to not exercise jurisdiction over the case, to avoid conflict with the state regarding policy-reform efforts on matters of “paramount public concern.”

Citing “significant changes to Texas law related to the policies, practices, and procedures associated with investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults,” Yeakel wrote that the passage of those new laws (which went into effect last September) indicates a “strong statewide interest in changing the current manner in which municipalities, law enforcement, and prosecutors address sexual assaults in Texas,” and “intrusion by the court at this juncture would have an impermissibly disruptive effect on the recently enacted Texas laws related to sexual assaults, which the court finds to be a matter of substantial public concern.”

In a statement given to the Chronicle Monday evening, Elizabeth Myers, an attorney representing the survivors, said, “Our clients are obviously disappointed by this ruling, but it is not the end of their case or their fight for justice.” Myers confirmed the lawyers are reviewing the order in detail, noting: “Our clients intend to pursue all legal options available to them.”

Myers further noted that “Judge Yeakel did not issue a ruling with respect to the majority of the claims (or their substance) based on the premise that he should abstain because survivors and advocates have already been successful in changing laws and policies as a result of the Survivor Plaintiffs’ willingness to shine a light on the issues. This ruling is certainly not a vindication for any of the Defendants or for the systems in Travis County that continue to fail survivors; we hope the Defendants will begin the hard work of listening and trying to make positive change.”

Survivor Justice Project, a grassroots organization working to improve the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault cases, told the Chronicle, “We want to pause in this moment to recognize and share our gratitude with the courageous women who put it all out there to create change for survivors in Travis County. For using your voices and making yourselves vulnerable, we are so grateful.”

A second lawsuit against Moore, her first assistant Mindy Montford, and Travis County – alleging defamation regarding a phone call Montford made to a third party in which she was recorded sharing private and seeminly false information about the case of a rape survivor – is still pending in Yeakel’s court.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

sexual assault, class action lawsuit, survivors' lawsuit, Lee Yeakel, Travis County District Attorney, Margaret Moore, Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Department, Brian Manley, Art Acevedo, Elizabeth Myers, Mindy Montford

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