Courts & Crime

Court rules lacrosse coach can sue Duke over remarks

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Mike Pressler, the former Duke University lacrosse coach who was forced out after an escort service dancer accused members of his team of rape, could pursue his claims of slander and libel against his former employer in the courtroom.

The opinion was issued after Duke appealed a ruling made by Judge Howard Manning in April 2008.

Duke lawyers had argued that Pressler, a former employee, was required to go through a university arbitration process before taking his case to court.

A top Duke administrator said the university planned to continue to fight Pressler's allegations.

"Duke intends to defend this case whether it is in arbitration or the courts," said Michael J. Schoenfeld, Duke vice president for public affairs and government relations, in a prepared statement.

Pressler, who built a national powerhouse lacrosse team during his 16 years at Duke, was forced out in April 2006 shortly after an escort service dancer accused players of gang-raping her -- allegations that turned out to be phony.

In 2007, Pressler and Duke reached a confidential settlement agreement.

Lawyers for Pressler argued in a 2008 Superior Court hearing that language from the settlement agreement showed the former Duke employee was no longer bound by policies of previous contracts with the university.

Pressler has alleged that John Burness, Duke's former senior vice president of public affairs and government relations, made slanderous, libelous and defamatory remarks about him to the news media after the settlement agreement was reached.

Burness retired in June 2008 after 30 years on the job.

Initially, Pressler argued that Duke had reneged on its settlement agreement, which had a clause prohibiting disparaging remarks.

But in a legal maneuver designed to sidestep arbitration, Pressler dropped that claim and slimmed down his complaint to focus on Burness' comments.

In the suit, Pressler complains about an April 9, 2007, article in the New York newspaper Newsday quoting Burness as saying the difference between Pressler and current lacrosse coach John Danowski was "night and day."

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