Education

Duke student, expelled after sex assault claim, sues for degree

Posted May 27, 2014 4:34 p.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2014 12:05 p.m. EDT

— A Duke student is suing the university after he was banned from the May 10 graduation ceremony because of another student's claim of sexual assault.

Lewis McLeod, a psychology major from Australia, says that, without his degree, his entire future is on hold.

According to the motion filed by Schwartz & Shaw of Raleigh, McLeod took a female Duke student back to his home on Nov. 14. McLeod alleges their sex was consensual and that the woman "got emotional" and began to cry. 

McLeod told his lawyers that the woman later took her claim of sexual assault to law enforcement, and that both Duke University police and Durham police investigated and decided not to charge him with a crime. 

The university Office of Student Conduct then conducted its own investigation, found McLeod guilty of sexual assault and expelled him. 

Duke had no comment Tuesday on the legal motion, which asks that Duke be compelled to award McLeod his degree and let him get on with his life.

McLeod's lawsuit describes a "sloppy investigation" that "violated Duke University's own written standards ... as well as all notions of fundamental fairness."

In the 40-page lawsuit, McLeod's attorneys laid out his arguments against the victim's side of the story, statements from her friends and how the case was handled.

A key argument is whether the alleged victim was so drunk as to unable to make a decision to have sex. McLeod says he and the woman met at a Durham bar and took a cab together back to his house.

McLeod also questions the use of anonymous friends of the woman who provided testimony against him, while McLeod was not allowed to use his roommate as a witness.

"Throughout the hearing, members of the panel and the Office of Student Conduct made decisions that prevented Mr. McLeod from presenting his side of the story, denied him his right to respond to allegations against him and denied him his right to a fair and impartial hearing," McLeod's attorneys wrote.

Durham attorney Kerry Sutton said it was inappropriate for Duke to investigate a case that should have been limited to law enforcement.

"I'm not saying rape doesn't happen. I know it happens. It's a horrific offense," Sutton said. But those cases should not be handled by universities.

Sutton saw the damage a wrongful claim can do when she advised a Duke lacrosse player in 2006. Her client was never charged in the case that drew national attention only to end in disgrace and disbarment for then-Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong. 

"I think it's terribly unfair to impact an accused student's life, future career, even the pursuit of their degree at this level," Sutton said. "It think it's terribly unfair."

McLeod's student visa expired at the end of the semester, and without a job, he can't stay in the United States. He has a job offer from a Wall Street firm, but it is contingent upon his graduation.

If he can't start that job as planned in July, McLeod's lawyers wrote, "inability to actually assume employment in this prestigious position is substantially certain to negatively impact him forevermore." 

A Durham County Superior Court judge is considering McLeod's case and has kept the door open for him to receive his degree once the case is resolved. McLeod's lawyers had no indication how soon the judge might rule.