Lewisville ISD wanted a 19-year-old who sued the district after an alleged rape to pay nearly $27,000 for legal fees after she lost the federal case.
Instead, the school district got a stern response from a federal judge who denied the request for money and told the district its former student did the community a favor by suing.
"[She] is a sexual assault survivor who still struggles with the psychological and emotional consequences of her assault," wrote Judge Ron Clark, who presided over the case against the district.
The lawsuit, which hinged on the federal Title IX law, accused Lewisville ISD of discriminating against the young woman after her parents reported that two football players from Hebron High Ninth Grade Center raped her at an off-campus party in 2012. She was 14 at the time.
A federal jury concluded after a week of testimony in March that Lewisville ISD did not retaliate against the young woman.
About two weeks after the trial, court records show, the school district’s attorney sent the woman’s attorneys a bill for $27,174. After some back and forth, the school district said it would seek $17,491 from the woman instead.
The bill included costs for transcripts, witnesses and printing.
This week, Clark rejected the district’s request and said that, if anything, the district could ask the woman to pay $12,453 but not more than that.
The judge wrote in his ruling that the young woman pursued her case "in good faith" and provided a "substantial" benefit to the public by pursuing her lawsuit. Clark also said the woman has limited financial resources of her own.
"She works part time," he wrote, "and has not enrolled in college because the assault and related bullying by her classmates forced her to miss several months of school, creating large gaps in her education."
The judge said the lawsuit will put other students and parents on notice and will force the school district to be more aware of its duties under Title IX, the federal law which protects students from sex-based discrimination.
The judge’s ruling came as a relief to the young woman, one of her attorneys said, because in it he indicated that he believes her account of the sexual assault. The woman said in interviews before the trial that she worried losing her suit against the district might give people less of a reason to believe her.
The school district delayed its investigation of her allegations for several months and eventually concluded that it did not have enough evidence to determine if she had been raped. District officials who testified during the trial in Sherman conceded that they didn’t follow all of the federal Title IX rules while they were investigating the allegations.
A Harvard psychiatrist said the woman has a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder that he believes is tied to her assault.
In an interview after the trial in March, the school district’s attorney Thomas Brandt said the young woman had gone after the wrong woman.
"Our hearts go out to them. There’s no doubt that there’s tremendous suffering," Brandt said. "We were not the cause of that suffering."
On Friday, a Lewisville ISD spokeswoman for the school district declined to explain why the school district asked the woman for money to reimburse its court costs.
"Because the district is involved in ongoing litigation, it is our practice to not comment further on that," said Amanda Brim, the spokeswoman.
Charla Aldous, the woman’s attorney, said she found Lewisville ISD’s request for money "beyond appalling." She said this is the first time in her 30 years of law practice where a defendant that won a lawsuit asked the other side to help pay for legal fees.
"LISD has said that they really feel for my client," Aldous said, "but actions speak louder than words. How can they say that for this rape victim and yet seek $27,000 in costs from her after all that has happened to her? It’s absolutely heartless."
The judge’s response, however, gave the woman and her family a sense of reassurance, Aldous said.
"It has been an empowering process for her," Aldous said. "It meant the world to her that someone that was not on her legal team believed what she said."
Aldous’ law firm has already filed a motion asking for another trial in the case. The woman also has civil lawsuits pending against the young men she’s accused of assaulting her.
From a national perspective, it’s uncommon for school districts to seek attorney fees from students or parents who sue them, according to lawyers involved in similar cases.
John Clune, who has represented sex assault victims in Title IX cases before, said school districts often have a choice whether or not to ask the other side to pay for its court fees. In one case Clune was involved in, a judge got mad at a school for even making a request for legal fees.
"Even if they won their case, they don’t know that she is not a rape survivor," Clune said, referring to Lewisville ISD’s case. "And for them to punish somebody in that fashion seems, I feel like, bullying."
The issue of reimbursement usually comes up in federal cases tied to the federal special-education law, which has a provision that allows school districts to recover attorney fees from attorneys or parents who sue.
But even then, the bar is high for recovering the fees, said Sonja Trainor, the program director for the National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys.
A school district would have to prove the lawsuit was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation," or brought "for any improper purpose," the federal special-education law says.
Lewisville ISD waded into that territory several years ago, when it asked the family of a 9-year-old student who hanged himself in a nurse’s bathroom to pay $14,000 for the district’s court fees. The family had sued the district, alleging that it ignored the boy’s complaints of harassment and bullying at school.
Clark, who oversaw that case as well, found that the boy’s parents failed to show the district intentionally discriminated against the boy or treated him differently. The judge’s 2012 ruling came two days after the boy’s mother died of a cardiac aneurysm.
It’s unclear if the family ever had to pay the money that the school district requested.