Four Women File New Sexual Assault Suit in State Court
Survivors come forward to accuse APD and the D.A.'s Office
Another sexual assault class action lawsuit has been filed against Austin, Travis County, current District Attorney Margaret Moore, her predecessor Rosemary Lehmberg, current Austin police Chief Brian Manley, and his predecessor Art Acevedo (now Houston's chief). Filed in state court on Monday, Sept. 14, by four women who were not plaintiffs in the 2018 federal lawsuit (now on appeal), the new case argues that thousands of local women survivors have been disbelieved, dismissed, and discriminated against by local law enforcement.
The four survivors – Hanna Senko, Amanda Day, Whitley Degollado, and Jessica Ragsdill – have come forward to accuse the Austin Police Department and the D.A.'s Office of continued violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. "At its core, this case asks whether [the defendants] can systematically refuse to investigate sex crimes against women based on biased assumptions about their gender," the lawsuit reads.
In a statement to the Chronicle, Jennifer Ecklund and Elizabeth Myers, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said, "The second suit is necessary to hold the City and County accountable, since neither of them made the necessary changes while the first lawsuit was pending and simply waited to see if it would go away." The suit highlights a long list of 20 alleged issues, mirroring those in the 2018 federal class action, including the years-long wait to test rape kits; police and prosecutors suggesting that survivors are "lying about their assaults"; failure to inform survivors that their cases have been closed; and the infamous wall at APD where officers supposedly "ridiculed women who they believed made false rape claims." The plaintiffs claim these actions and more exemplify how the defendants' "unconstitutional and discriminatory conduct" subjects women rape survivors – and all women – in Travis County to "continued risk at the hands of perpetrators who are never held accountable."
Aside from its 14th Amendment claim, the suit argues the defendants also conspired to violate women's civil rights: "Defendants, in whole or part, conspired with each other to deprive, either directly or indirectly, the Named Plaintiffs and all members of the Class, of the equal protection of the laws; or hinder others from giving or securing equal protection of law to all persons." Lastly, the suit accuses the defendants of violating the Texas Constitution, which protects the rights of crime victims and grants them the right to "be treated with fairness and respect" for their privacy and dignity.
Like the federal lawsuit, this filing grimly details the accounts of each plaintiff's assault. One woman was date-raped by a man she knew in 2006. Her case was cleared exceptionally by APD, and prosecution was declined by the D.A.'s Office. Another survivor was repeatedly raped, beaten, and strangled by a man she dated in 2009. When she reported her attacks in 2018, the officer concluded that her consent to "kissing and stuff" before she was raped "negated their ability to prove sexual assault." The third survivor was gang-raped in 2019 in an orchestrated attack led by her boyfriend at the time. Though her rapes are "confirmed by significant written evidence" sent between the men via text and social media, her case was declined prosecution with the suggestion that her prior consensual sexual activity with her then-partner "invalidated her current claims." The fourth survivor was drugged and raped while in town for a 2018 conference. Two months later, her assailant told APD the sex was consensual, and the woman's case was cleared exceptionally when prosecution was declined.
Changing the Process
The plaintiffs say the exact number of members of the class on whose behalf they are seeking relief – women survivors of sexual assault in Travis County whose cases were not prosecuted – isn't currently known. But, "upon information and belief, the Class includes more than 11,000 women" and the defendants' conduct is "systemic, ongoing, and gives rise to a clear inference of gender discrimination," the filing argues. The suit argues that rape is predominately a crime against women, as it scrutinizes APD's numbers on reported assaults and the D.A.'s prosecution rates.
As highlighted in several of the plaintiffs' individual experiences, the suit also notes APD's overuse and often incorrect use of exceptional clearance to close rape cases. It also calls out the 2019 collaboration of then-County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (now a state senator) and former state Sen. Wendy Davis (now a candidate for Congress) to create the Sexual Assault Prevention and Healing Work Group between survivors, advocates, and the defendants. Though Davis met with numerous people, a report on her findings was never delivered by Eckhardt, according to the suit.
The federal class action against the same defendants was filed in 2018 by eight plaintiffs who argued that systemic discrimination against women rape survivors like themselves violated their constitutional rights. It was dismissed in February by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who insisted many of the suit's claims would be more appropriately decided by state court. The plaintiffs appealed Yeakel's ruling last month; the case is now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The relief sought by the plaintiffs in the state case includes damages and attorney's fees, but also a permanent injunction ordering city and county law enforcement to better train and supervise adequate staffing to handle sexual assault cases and evidence; to require trauma-informed investigations; to timely analyze all rape kits and inform survivors; to treat sexual assaults with the same urgency and importance as other crimes; to treat women survivors with the same respect as male survivors; and to accurately and publicly report data on the number of cases reported, investigated, and concluded.
Why did the women take action now? According to attorneys Ecklund and Myers, the four plaintiffs decided to file their suit because "this is a time of change in the community, and they are unwilling to forgo the progress they've made in convincing the community there is a problem."