Kristen Vander-Plas (SLAPPed for speaking out against her rapist)

[Trigger Warning: The following interview includes references to rape and sexual assault, which may be triggering to some survivors. If you are looking for resources, RAINN is a good place to start.]

Kristen Vander-Plas 

SLAPPed for speaking out against her rapist

Kristen is an attorney in Texas. During law school at Texas Tech, she was SLAPPed by the man that raped her in college, a politician who wrote a conservative blog and unsuccessfully ran for Congress. Donald May, sought damages between $200,000 and $1 million against Kristen, whom he accused of making false accusations of sexual harassment to get him banned from the Tech law school. She won her case on appeal in October 2016. 

Answers edited for length and clarity. Kristen spoke with Valentina Stackl, PTP member and Senior Communications Specialist at Greenpeace USA. 

Where did you grow up? Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I was raised here in Lubbock [Texas] with my folks and my older sister Stephanie, who is a pediatrician. My folks moved to Lubbock to pastor a church, they are still pastors, and so that’s kind of the main focus of the family. Partially because of everything that happened in undergrad, I decided to go to law school. I’d been involved with politics for a long time so it had been on the radar for several years before I decided to take the plunge and go to law school. I interned at the Supreme Court of Texas after my first year and that really cemented what I wanted to do with my life. That’s where I could have a bigger and better impact. And still help people. And that’s what I do now. I do civil litigation and appeals, and business law. 

I understand that the person who filed a SLAPP suit against you was the same person who raped you when you were in college. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

I was an LCU (Lubbock Christian University) student when the assaults happened. It didn’t affect my family because I didn’t tell them until Don [Donald May] sued me. Some people knew because I had to ensure that Don didn’t have access to LCU students anymore, but nobody else really knew. I know academically I threw myself into my work, so I buried it and moved on. Obviously I didn’t really move on. But tried to and thought I did, until all of this came up. 

He [Don] started showing up outside my classes at law school. I was never really sure if he got my schedule of classes or if he just knew that law students practically live at the law school. And when he wasn’t showing up exactly where I was, I would turn the corner to walk past the coffee bar and there he was. So that’s what ultimately led me to go to the dean of students and say “I’ve got to have help. I don’t know why he’s here. He doesn’t seem to have a reason to be here. You have to keep him away, I can’t do this.” 

So the school asked him to refrain from coming and to meet his friend who is a law professor off campus. If they just wanted to meet and go for coffee they could just do that somewhere else. And originally they asked him if he had a planned thing on campus, if he had to be there, to let them know what the plan was. The plan was: he’ll let administration know, and they’d tell me and then I could decide whether I wanted to go to classes that day. The problem is that Don never told them. So he would just keep showing up. I would tell administration. I had several text threads with my friends, they had looked up his picture and they just started watching for him. And they would text me and say “Hey, Don is here. Don’t leave your classroom. I’m gonna come get you when you get out of class.” That started a lot of rumors. And that was difficult. Once he sued and word got out to the community, including the political community that we had shared, I guess it made a lot of people uncomfortable. 

A few people specifically and publicly took his side. And what felt like a much smaller group of people took my side. And a vast majority of people threw their hands up and didn’t want anything to do with it. 

We went from no no one knowing to everyone at my law school knowing to the entire community knowing within the space of a month. 

What was it like when you found out that you were being sued? 

I was out to dinner with my folks and my sister and I got a call from our local NBC affiliate, somehow they’d gotten my phone number, and they asked if I had a comment on the lawsuit that had just been filed against me. And of course, this had sort of been brewing for several months, so I can’t say I was completely and totally shocked that Don had decided to sue me, because he really hadn’t gotten his way with a lot of the stuff that had been going on and certainly kept threatening a lawsuit. But that was definitely a shocking way to find out that I had been sued. And then I kind of had to go on the defensive and had to try to find an attorney. 

What other intimidation tactics did Don and his lawyers use?

To the best of my understanding, Don actually went to several attorneys in town who were kind of gonna be my first calls once I found out I had gotten sued, and even though he didn’t hire them he had talked to them and had some sort of consultation to the point of when I called them they were conflicted out of the case and couldn’t take my case. So I ended up calling a friend for help. He’s a local personal- injury attorney. I was pretty much panicked at that point. I said “I don’t know what to do, what do I do?” and he said: “Stop looking; I’ll take your case. We’ll take care of it.”

From the very beginning, the intimidation tactic of showing up at the law school. Period. That was in his playbook. Throughout the process of sending threatening letters, that said “You need to retract your statement, or else!” He actually sent me a confession, in a letter, that all I had to do was sign (the letter said), and send it back to them, saying that I had lied, and that he was a great guy. He pushed continuously through the Texas Tech officials, to be allowed back on campus. Probably the most egregious, or the scariest thing that he tried was, was in the original letters and particularly during the lawsuit (I was in my second and third year in law school during most of this process).  I was beginning to prepare to take the bar exam, and you have to pass a character and fitness test. It’s not a written exam, but they just comb through your life and decide whether first you can take the bar exam and second whether they’ll give you a license if and when you pass the bar. And the letters had continuously referenced “Obviously you want to be a lawyer and you’re never gonna be a lawyer if you keep this up, and if you don’t retract your statements.” Then I found out later that he and his attorney had sent multiple letters to the State Bar of Texas asking that I not be allowed to take the bar and in particular saying that I don’t deserve a license even if they do allow me to take the bar. And it was more than just words because the board of law examiners agreed, and put me on a program of “OK you can take the bar but we’re not going to give you a license until this is resolved in your favor.” And so that was hanging over my head the entire time I was studying for the bar exam. My entire third year. Through graduation. Through studying for and taking the three-day bar exam. All the way up until a couple of weeks before the bar-exam results came out, because that is when the court of appeals decision came down in my favor. I did pass and I did get my license. 

He also used his power with the media. The only reason I found out I was being sued is because Don held a press conference about it and named me at the press conference. And so figuring out how to deal with that on top of the allegation. Dealing with a lawsuit and then on top of that also having to deal with being named as a sexual-assault victim and a press conference, and then the media ran with it. It was really difficult. Eventually they backed off of that, thankfully. My attorney had them yank my name out of that evening’s broadcast. And they did. He reminded them of their ethical duties and internal procedures not to name sexual-assault victims. And so they did for a while stop running my name with all of the stories. But a good chunk of the damage had already been done. 

How did the Texas anti-SLAPP law affect your case?

What happened to me (the sexual assaults), certainly had an impact on why I wanted to go to law school and even now has a certain amount of impact because it affects my life. But I tried to turn it into a positive avenue to use the Texas anti-SLAPP statute the help my clients in a number of cases. That gives me a little sense of of victory. Not only did it help me get free, but it helps me use it for other clients. That is a good feeling. I have filed anti-SLAPP motions in many cases. It’s a niche area that not a lot of people understand. David [Kristen’s husband] says he thinks I’m now the anti-SLAPP expert in the area. That’s been gratifying. The law helped me get my law license and now I can use it to help other people who have been brought into a lawsuit that they never should have been. 

So there were two causes of action: he sued my for slander and defamation and liable and defamation. All of the Lubbeck judges recused themselves, so they brought up a judge from San Angelo, and he dismissed one of the causes of action. In Texas you get an immediate appeal, so we appealed to the Amarillo Court of Appeals the cause of action that was not dismissed. Late in the year in 2016 the court of appeals came down on our side and said that Don didn’t produce any evidence of his second cause of action either. We got a final judgement. Since then, I haven’t had to do a ton where I interact with Don, but we end up at the same events together sometimes. Which happens. You run into each other. I ran into him at my grocery store a couple of weeks ago. I see him driving around town. He was at an event at LCU a couple weeks ago and David and I had to avoid him for the whole night.

What would you say to someone facing a similar threat? 

When you’re sued, you’re put in a defensive position immediately. It’s not like you can just stop it. It’s not in your power to do. I would say this: there’s probably more people in your camp than you realize. There’s a lot of legal resources out there. And a lot of personal ones too. A lot of times your friends and family just aren’t sure how to react but if you reach out to them, they will support you. And the people who don’t, don’t count.

We have a saying in my family: “You needed to know that.” Basically,  if someone is unwilling to stand up for you, they weren’t your friends to begin with. And you needed to know that. But there’s a lot of people who are wanting to stand up for you. 

I speak to victims a lot, not just necessarily sexual-assault victims, or SLAPP victims, but folks who have gone through something and it seems to be pretty standard, if you have one person that doesn’t believe you or one person who stands against you it feels like it takes 10 people who feel the other way to make up for that one gut punch. And I think that’s true across a lot of perspectives. Remember, really count the people who support you. If they stand up for you in the middle of a fire, and they walk through fire with you, that means they’re true and you can count on them. 

You don’t have to do it alone legally or emotionally. You also don’t have to do it alone psychologically. 

Where did you find your strength?

First of all, I have a faith I was able to cling to and that gave me a lot of strength. My family was a constant support. And then the band of people who had my back– included one of the other congressional candidates who was – at that very time – running against Don for Congress. And my boss continuing to hold out a  post-graduation job offer to me, even though he was on the Texas Supreme Court and it could have been a real political black eye for him if things didn’t go well. Their court ended up having to deal with the case, and they handled it in a super respectful way. Made me feel like I could come up for air, a little bit, when it felt like a ton of bricks was dunking me under water. Every once in a while something like that, I would think “OK, I have an air bubble for a second. Here’s somebody who is actually using their influence to help me.” And so the few times that actually happened where memorable. Because it felt, not like I always had my own power to fight back, but I had people who were lending me their power and their ability and their strength. And that was invaluable. 
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I’ve been SLAPPed and need help

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