Though a woman who says she was sexually assaulted did not prevail in her lawsuit against the school district, she and her attorney have won their latest battle. And they vow to continue to fight.
U.S. District Judge Ron Clark ruled Thursday that Lewisville ISD may not recover $17,492 in court costs from a 19-year-old woman that sued the district over its handling of her reported sexual assault in 2012.
The woman was a 14-year-old freshman at the time of the incident in which she said she was drugged and raped by Hebron High School football players at an off-campus party. The Lewisville Texan Journal is not using her name in our stories because of the nature of the case and the fact that she was a minor when it occurred.
The woman and her family sued the district under the federal Title IX statute over claims of the district’s retaliation and deliberate indifference to her plight. Prior to trial, the court dismissed the deliberate indifference portion of the case, allowing the retaliation portion to go forward. In March, a jury in Sherman decided in favor of Lewisville ISD.
Why LISD was denied costs
Federal law normally allows the prevailing party to recover certain court costs from the losing party. After the trial, LISD’s attorney sought $27,175 in costs from the woman, but failed to confer with her attorney first as required by court rules. In conference the plaintiff’s attorney objected to some of the costs, and LISD reduced that demand to $17,492. The plaintiff successfully convinced the court to deny the district’s request.
According to the ruling, case law allows a judge in the Fifth Circuit to deny costs for more than one of several reasons such as the losing party’s limited finances, the prevailing party’s enormous resources, misconduct, close and difficult legal issues presented, benefit to the public, and good faith in prosecuting the action.
In the case against Lewisville ISD, Judge Clark wrote, “The court denies LISD’s Motion in its entirety because [the plaintiff] pursued this lawsuit in good faith, she has very limited financial resources, her pursuit of this lawsuit conferred a substantial benefit to to the public, and the legal issues presented were very close and difficult.”
Clark noted that the disparity in wealth between the parties was not enough to deny costs, nor was the notion of costs having a chilling effect on parents seeking to contest school district decisions.
Clark wrote that the plaintiff is a sexual assault survivor who still struggles with the psychological and emotional consequences of her assault. He wrote that she works part-time and has not enrolled in college due to the academic setback the assault and resulting bullying caused.
“In this case, it is clear that [the plaintiff] brought this case in good faith. No claim in this case was frivolous. The dispositive motions were hotly contested, and ultimately, [the plaintiff’s] Title IX retaliation claim proceeded to trial.”
Clark wrote that Title IX is a complex area of law, and that the case led to nuanced arguments by all parties involved, and lengthy analysis by himself and the magistrate judges on the case.
Lastly Clark wrote that the plaintiff’s case conferred benefit to the public, noting that it was not the first time that parents had sued LISD for discriminating against their child. He brought up the case of Montana Lance, a 9-year-old victim of bullying at Stewart’s Creek Elementary who hanged himself in the school nurse’s office in 2010. Dallas attorney Tom Brandt defended Lewisville ISD in both cases.
In its initial response to the plaintiff’s motion against costs, LISD disputed the benefit to the public. “While important to the Plaintiff, this case was ultimately a standard Title IX retaliation case which did not receive substantial public scrutiny (as, for instance, the Baylor Title IX scandal has).”
But Clark noted that because of media coverage from The Lewisville Texan Journal, USA Today, Dallas Morning News and others, LISD will be more aware of Title IX and its duties under that and other anti-discrimination statutes.
“Additionally,” he wrote, “parents of LISD students and residents of Lewisville will more closely watch the actions of LISD’s administrators and employees.”
The court also pared down what it thought LISD would have been owed if it had prevailed on costs to just $12,453.
The district is not entitled to recover attorney fees from the plaintiff. But the plaintiff would have been entitled to recover fees from the district if she had won her claim.
Reached for comment Thursday, district spokesperson Amanda Brim said the district had not had time to review the court’s ruling, and therefore had no response yet to the findings.
Continuing the fight
The woman has a civil suit pending in state district court against the alleged perpetrators of the assault. She has also requested the court to order a retrial of the case against LISD, on the grounds that information that came out in trial showed the deliberate indifference claim should not have been dismissed.
Charla Aldous, the Dallas-based lead attorney for the plaintiff said that any costs that the young woman is charged with, she would pay for.
“We’ve got so much money [put into] this case now, it almost doesn’t matter anymore,” Aldous said. “We didn’t take this case for the money, we knew it was going to be a high hurdle under the law. We took it because it was the right thing to do.”
Aldous said that after she first met with the girl and her parents, she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t take the case.
In closing arguments in the March trial, the plaintiff asked the jury for $9.5 million from LISD, according to an article in Texas Lawyer magazine. Aldous said that under the law, you have to ask for a specific amount.
Court costs so far for Aldous and her client have been about $200,000, in checks she has written. “We have several million dollars in attorney time.” Aldous will not charge her client for any of that if they are ultimately defeated in court.
Money is not the motivator for the woman or her family either, according to Aldous. “In the years that I’ve represented her, not one time — not one time did they say, ‘How much money are we gonna get from this?’ Never,” Aldous said.
“All we wanted was for Lewisville Independent School District to be held accountable so this would not happen to another victim of sexual assault,” Aldous said.
Aldous said she hoped that Clark’s usage of the wording “sexual assault survivor” in his order denying costs would give her client some solace and peace. She said she couldn’t wait to share it with the woman to show her that the court believed her.
Even though they have lost the case, Aldous said she thought she could see a positive difference in her client.
“I can hear a strength in her voice that I never heard before,” she said.