Stripper Lied, Duke Boys Cleared, Now Coach Can Sue

Photo: Three Duke lacrosse players who were accused and cleared of raping an exotic dancer.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Duke University's former lacrosse coach can pursue a slander lawsuit against the school and its former spokesman, a North Carolina appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Duke's attorneys had argued the slander and libel claims should be handled through arbitration, rather than in court. Arbitration could limit what the former coach is able to get in damages, his attorneys say.

Former coach Michael Pressler had settled with the school after he was fired following a stripper's false accusations in 2006 that three players raped her at a team party. The three players later were declared innocent by state prosecutors.

Pressler's lawsuit says Duke violated the settlement when former school spokesman John Burness twice made disparaging comments about Pressler to the media.

(Getty Images/Sara D. Davis)
Both sides had agreed to keep terms of the settlement confidential and to avoid making disparaging or defamatory comments about each other.

On Tuesday, the three-judge Court of Appeals panel ruled that Pressler's obligation to arbitrate his claims was voided by his settlement agreement with Duke, agreeing with a trial court judge's decision.

An attorney for Duke had argued at an appeals court hearing in January that the arbitration requirement remained despite the settlement.

"Here there is no doubt or question regarding the language of the mutual release. The parties clearly stated their mutual intent that the mutual release fully and finally resolve their disputes and that 'all earlier agreements" be canceled,' " Judge Ann Marie Calabria wrote for a three-judge appeals court panel.

The ruling means Pressler could pursue punitive damages and other penalties for the comments he said Burness made to the media a few weeks after the settlement was reached in March 2007. Pressler's attorney argued that arbitration would limit the former lacrosse coach's maximum award to about five years' salary.

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld declined to say whether the university planned to appeal further to the state Supreme Court. He said the school will continue contesting Pressler's case.

"Duke intends to defend these claims whether in an arbitration proceeding or in a court proceeding," Schoenfeld said.

Pressler coached at Duke for 16 seasons. He was the only Duke official who lost a job as a result of the case. He now coaches lacrosse at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He was picked by the U.S. sport's governing body to coach the men's national lacrosse team in the 2010 world championships in England.

The Duke players were part of a 60 Minutes interview in 2006. Watch it here.