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Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice joins McCluskey lawsuit against University of Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – The legal team for Matt and Jill McCluskey just got bigger. Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham announced she would be joining their $56 million lawsuit against the University of Utah on Monday.

The McCluskeys’ daughter, Lauren, was murdered on the University of Utah’s campus by ex-boyfriend Melvin Rowland on October 22, 2018. Investigations conducted by multiple agencies found that Lauren had reached out to campus police multiple times for help before she was killed.

Since then, University of Utah administration completed 30 recommendations made by an independent review board, invested $6 million in safety improvements, and implemented new policies, procedures, protocols, and trainings by the Department of Public Safety.

But despite all of the university’s efforts, the McCluskeys and their legal team said the administration has failed to do one thing – Admit that they were responsible for Lauren’s death as a result of their oversight and shortcomings.

In June, they filed a $56 million lawsuit against the University of Utah and said all proceeds would go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation.

“Putting effort into making campuses safer actually helps comfort me a little bit that I know something good is coming out of it. It still will do nothing to fill that hole in my heart where she used to be,” said Jill McCluskey.

“Without the university stepping up and saying, ‘We made some mistakes here and we’re going to fix them and we’re going to fix them in systematic ways,’ I think it’s perfectly rational for the students to continue to fear for their safety,” said Durham.

Three months later, the Utah Attorney General’s Office, who engages in litigation on behalf of the university, filed a motion to dismiss the McCluskey’s lawsuit.

Documents indicated the motion was made because “harassment perpetrated by a non-student, non-employee, with no University affiliation, cannot be the basis of a Title IX claim against the University as the University does not have the ‘substantial control’ of such an individual required for the implied cause of action judicially created under Title IX.”

“It definitely does feel like they [university officials] hope that people will forget about Lauren. We are saying her name. We are trying to make change in her name and we hope to have an impact and make women safer,” said Jill McCluskey.

University officials said the motion to dismiss was a standard initial response in legal proceedings of this nature and that it does not preclude them and the state from seeking a negotiated resolution of the lawsuit as representatives from the Utah Attorney General’s Office continue to do so on their behalf.

On Monday, the McCluskey’s legal team filed an amended complaint in response to the motion to dismiss. In a press conference, Durham announced she had accepted the request from Jim McConkie from the McCluskeys’ legal counsel to join their team. She is the former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice and now an attorney for Zimmerman Booher law firm.

“As I was following the events after the McCluskey murder, I was quite bewildered about the dynamic that was being represented in the press,” Durham told ABC4 News. “As more about what had happened emerged, I was bewildered by the University’s pretty rigid stance that A, this wasn’t their problem; B, they did nothing wrong; C, they had no responsibility for this tragic event.”

McConkie said his firm specializes in litigation and with Durham on-board, it was a ‘match made in heaven’ because of her experience in appellate work and passion towards eliminating gender bias. They will also be joined by Fred Voros Jr., Dick Baldwin, Alexandra Mareschal, and Julie Nelson from Zimmerman Booher.

“We needed that kind of wisdom from the beginning, so that what we’re doing here will not result in an appellate that we might not foresee,” he said. “Her opinions in Utah have been transformative in many areas and she’s kind of led the way. As society changes, laws need to be shaped and reevaluated. She’s been at the forefront of that kind of a process.”

Durham said her decision didn’t come easy. Her ties to the University of Utah consists of history that spans many generations – She taught at the law school, four of her children attended the university, and her husband’s grandfather was one of its former presidents.

“I will understand if they’re unhappy with me for doing this. But I see that as my professional choice and I also came to believe it was a professional responsibility,” she said. “This institution has enriched my life personally, in addition to the incalculable good it does in our community. But even institutions that we love can disappoint.”

In her statement to media Monday, she said:

“Despite reasonable and well-established responsibilities under federal law, the university repeatedly and consistently ignored its obligations, discriminated against Lauren based on stereotypes about women who report sexual harassment and assault, and ultimately failed completely to undertake any of the steps it was legally required and had the authority to do. Those steps would almost certainly have prevented her violent death.”

The university and its legal team now have an opportunity to file a reply memorandum, which will likely happen at the end of December. 

“We are very patient and we are in this for the long term. We’re not interested in any sort of personal profit or vendetta. But rather, we just want to make the system safe for everyone, especially young women,” said Matt McCluskey.

“Given that Lauren ran track, I would think about this in terms of a marathon…that we are just keeping at it and we will continue running. We have a strong team of people, strong group of friends, strong family, and we have our faith in God. We can continue to work towards the finish line,” said Jill McCluskey.

Durham said she believes the McCluskeys’ case will be a catalyst in campus safety for students across the country.

“This is a case that has the potential to advance the law in a remarkable and really effective way and I wanted to be a part of that,” she said. “We look forward to addressing these issues in court.”

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