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Parents of Lauren McCluskey officially file second lawsuit against University of Utah
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Parents of Lauren McCluskey officially file second lawsuit against University of Utah

(Matthew and Jill McCluskey. Credit: Kristin Murphy, KSL, file photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — The family of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey has filed a second lawsuit against the school, this time at the state level.  Attorneys are hopeful the suit can have a major impact on how police agencies are held accountable when they’re found to be negligent.

Lauren McCluskey was murdered on campus in October 2018 after repeated complaints to University of Utah police that she was being stalked, harassed and extorted by an ex-boyfriend. 

What’s in the second lawsuit? 

Among the list of defendants in the latest lawsuit are the state of Utah, former University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy, former Sgt. Kory Newbold, former Detective Kayla Dallof and former Officer Miguel Deras.  

Both the federal lawsuit and the state lawsuit argue that the University of Utah failed to provide Lauren McCluskey with the same opportunities and protections they would have provided a male student. However, while the federal suit focuses on Title IX rules, the state lawsuit zeroes in on the Utah constitution’s requirements to provide equal protection. It also accuses the school of negligence and wrongful death. 

The second lawsuit alleges the investigators knew about Melvin Rowland’s threats to McCluskey, and about his history as a convicted sex offender. It also claims the police department acted with “deliberate indifference” when Rowland’s criminal behavior reportedly escalated.

“Lauren and her friends told University officials and police about the abusive behavior and their fears that it could escalate into greater violence,” the suit asserts. “Instead of intervening and protecting Lauren from her killer, the University officials and police ignored, dismissed and avoided her requests for help. They did so based on gender stereotypes and indifference to the risks that women experience when they are suffering from domestic violence.” 

The lawsuit claims campus police demonstrated a pattern of treating women who report abuse, assault or harassment as if they were being investigated for wrongdoing, thus failing to take their claims seriously. 

Hoping for a larger impact

McCluskey family attorney Jim McConkie says the second lawsuit seeks $56 million in damage, the same amount sought in the federal suit. But money isn’t the only thing they’re hoping to get.  The family wants Utah to do away with something known as the doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which protects state and law enforcement agencies from lawsuits after one of their employees does something wrong.

McConkie says corporations don’t get this kind of protection, and he doesn’t believe police departments should, either.

“If businessmen are required to stand behind the acts of their employees, why shouldn’t the police department be responsible for standing behind the negligence or the bad acts or the mistakes of their employees?” he asked.

McConkie believes this lawsuit could have a ripple effect across the entire country. In his view, unless police agencies are held accountable for their employees’ behavior, the departments have no real incentive to change.

“We think we have a good faith basis to overturning that idea,” McConkie said.

More reaction

However, other attorneys don’t believe this will be an easy legal battle for the McCluskeys.  Former prosecutor Kent Morgan, who is not connected to this case, says the concept of sovereign immunity has been around since the very beginning of this country’s history.

“The concept of immunity is a legal concept that is never going to be overturned.  It would be like saying murder is OK,” Morgan said. 

There are exceptions to this rule, according to Morgan.  He says someone could sue a state entity if their policies violate someone’s constitutional rights.  One example would be if the police agency had a rule specifying they would only arrest people of a certain racial demographic.  Even if the agency doesn’t have that kind of policy in their books, they could be sued if they know one of their employees is breaking those policies without any kind of punishment.

“Does it become a custom or a policy of the police department if the police department doesn’t sanction him for doing that?” he asks.

Officials from the University of Utah say they haven’t had a chance to review the second lawsuit, and won’t comment until they have a chance to do so.

The background of the case

In addition to concerns about whether police took Lauren McCluskey’s concerns seriously are photos her family and McConkie says were improperly accessed and shared by an officer on the case. 

McCluskey had briefly dated Melvin Rowland, 37, in 2018 but ended the relationship after she learned of his true age and his status as a convicted sex offender. She reportedly contacted University of Utah police multiple times about strange text messages which she believed were coming from Rowland’s friends.

McCluskey then received a message demanding that she deposit $1,000 into a bank account. If she did not, she was told that intimate photographs of her and Rowland would be posted on the internet. University of Utah Campus Police Chief Dale Brophy says McCluskey complied with that demand and then reported the extortion to campus police. 

McCluskey’s parents claim former U. Officer Miguel Deras improperly shared the photos, victimizing their daughter a second time. Deras denies the allegations and now works as a police officer in Logan. 

Police say McCluskey was shot to death Oct. 22, 2018 by Rowland. He died by suicide a few hours later as officers sought to arrest him.