AUSTIN (KXAN) — A United States district court judge ruled to dismiss a class-action lawsuit Monday that claimed Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and other Austin officials mishandled sexual assault cases for eight women.
In June 2018, three women filed a lawsuit, claiming they were denied “equal access to justice and equal protection of the law,” according to a lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed the three women were subjected to “policies, customs, and practices that discriminate against them based on their gender.” Since then, five other women joined the suit, including one who filed a lawsuit against Moore and First Assistant District Attorney Melinda Montford last September, claiming that the two conspired together to say that her alleged sexual assault was consensual.
Along with Moore and Manley, the city of Austin, former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the county itself were named in the class-action suit.
The lawsuit dismissed Monday put the main question from the plaintiffs like this: “Plaintiffs assert that at the heart of this case is the ‘federal constitutional question: Does it violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for the City of Austin and Travis County to systematically refuse to appropriately investigate and prosecute sex crimes against women based on biased assumptions about women?'”
“While this lawsuit has been pending, it has been an impediment to the work we are doing, to the handling of sexual assault cases. I think now that the lawsuit’s out of the way, good information can be put before the public,” Moore said to KXAN on Monday.
The defendants argue the plaintiffs have not “stated claims for which relief may be granted.” The judge found except for one case, the plaintiffs’ claims are not specific. The judge also “declines to exercise jurisdiction” related to other claims in the case, in part because the plaintiffs may be able to bring their claims to state court, and because the federal court did not want its ruling to conflict with new laws in Texas.
An attorney for the defendants said in a statement to KXAN that her clients are “obviously disappointed”, but the ruling isn’t the end for their case.
“We are reviewing the order in detail and our clients intend to pursue all legal options available to them. Of note, 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,” Jennifer Rudenick Ecklund said.
The City of Austin released this statement to KXAN Monday after the judge’s ruling:
“We appreciate the Judge’s thoughtful and thorough deliberation in this matter, and agree that the case should be dismissed. Regardless of the court’s ruling, though, the City of Austin remains committed to treating all sexual assault survivors with dignity and respect, and will ensure our officers have the appropriate resources and training to investigate all such cases appropriately.”
The lawsuit was originally heard Dec. 17, 2018, but further consideration of the case was delayed to see if the Texas Legislature passed any laws that might affect it. The legislature passed a number of bills, including one that creates deadlines for Sexual Assault Kit testing and requires law enforcement to clear their backlogs. In February 2019, the Austin Police Department cleared its backlog of 2,665 untested rape kits.
Another bill created a sexual assault task force, which is charged with recommending how law enforcement around the state can improve how sex assault cases are handled.
In January 2019, the Austin City Council also asked the city manager to hire an outside firm to review how the city investigates sexual assaults.
“Were the court to review Plaintiffs’ remaining claims, not only would the court be assessing the new laws as they might affect Plaintiffs’ claims and any underlying criminal cases, but the court would need to analyze how the requested prospective relief could be granted without coming into conflict with the implementation of the new laws,” the decision stated.