Travis County Settles With Sexual Assault Survivors

$580,000 settlement reached in three-year legal battle over handling of sexual assault cases

Marina Conner in October 2020 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After a three-year legal battle, Travis County has settled federal and state lawsuits brought against the county and city of Austin by sexual assault survivors. The agreement, which includes a $250,000 commitment to fund programs to enhance the prosecution of sexual assault, was reached Tuesday, June 22 – a day before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case.

"The message of our settlement today is also very clear: The days of people who have experienced sexual assault not being believed, or being treated badly when they come forward and file charges, are over," Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said at a Tuesday press conference after the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to approve the settlement.

Filed by three survivors in June 2018, the original federal lawsuit was brought against the Austin Police Department (and past chiefs Art Acevedo and Brian Manley), the Travis County District Attorney's Office (and former D.A.s Margaret Moore and Rosemary Lehmberg), and the city and county as entities. It argued that systemic and persistent failures within the local criminal justice system violated the constitutional rights of women rape survivors. The suit was amended in August of that year to include five additional women as plaintiffs.

In February 2020, a month before the Democratic primary as Moore ran for reelection, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case. Declining to take up the majority of the claims, Yeakel ruled that the bulk of the suit should've been filed in state court. Moore was defeated by José Garza in a July primary run-off. Upon winning the general election in November, Garza and his office began efforts to improve the treatment of sexual assault survivors within the justice system.

The survivor-plaintiffs appealed Yeakel's ruling last summer, shortly before another four women came forward to file a second suit in state court against the same defendants. In February, the 5CA granted the plaintiffs oral arguments, which were scheduled to take place this week prior to Tuesday's settlement announcement. While the suit against the city of Austin defendants is ongoing, on Wednesday Council Member Greg Casar told the Chronicle that the city's lawyers planned to resume settlement discussions.

At Tuesday's press conference, the D.A. praised the survivor-plaintiffs who had taken his office and predecessors to court. "Because of their courage and determination, we are undertaking significant reforms in the District Attorney's Office. Because of their courage, our office is working to ensure that survivors are always centered in our criminal justice system."

The financial settlement totals $580,000, which includes attorneys fees; $280,000 will go to the plaintiffs (the aforementioned 12 named, plus two who've come forward with similar claims). Another $250,000 has been earmarked in the upcoming county budget (for fiscal year 2022) to enhance prosecution of rape cases and support services for survivors. According to the plaintiffs' attorney Elizabeth Myers, those improvements have not yet been identified, but she said the D.A.'s Office is seeking input from the survivor-plaintiffs.

"I really have no words for what it feels like to know that the survivors that come after me will not have the same experiences we all had going through the system," survivor-plaintiff Marina Conner told the Chronicle Tuesday. Her fellow plaintiff Heather Sin echoed that sentiment: "The county's acknowledgement and commitment are a huge step toward equity. I hope the city follows suit. It would be wonderful if the APD grants us some dignity this time around."

After Casar tweeted his support on Tuesday for a city settlement with the survivors, Acevedo, now the chief in Miami, fired back: "Greg Casar is your opinion informed by facts and evidence or solely by your disdain for law enforcement and the @Austin_Police? When are you going to apologize for your attack on the rule of law? Or for your knee jerk decisions that have placed the people of austin at risk?"

Since Acevedo is still himself a defendant, it's unclear if his opinion would influence the city's decision on a settlement. In the interim, Myers confirmed that once the 5CA accepts the plaintiffs' motion to dismiss the federal suit, the claims of the eight original plaintiffs against the city will be refiled in state court. A third suit against the city, led by the two women who've not yet been publicly identified, may also be filed.

In a statement, Myers and co-attorney Jennifer Ecklund praised the D.A.'s Office for acknowledging systemic failures and committing to support those who come forward. "The Plaintiffs are proud of the work that will be done as a result of this settlement, and look forward to a day when survivors receive compassion, justice, and respect from the system entrusted with their experiences," said Myers. "They hope this beginning may also lead to meaningful change in police policy and procedure."

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