Local News

Ex-Lacrosse Coach to Sue Duke for Slander; Nifong Blamed in Players' Suit

Posted January 16, 2008 12:00 p.m. EST
Updated January 23, 2008 5:24 p.m. EST

— Former Duke University men's lacrosse Coach Mike Pressler filed an amended complaint against the university Wednesday, claiming slander.

Pressler claims Duke's senior vice president for public affairs, John Burness, falsely told a Newsday reporter that Pressler was fired because "he had not adequately supervised his team," which was at the center of the high-profile criminal investigation into an exotic dancer's claims that she was raped at a lacrosse team party.

The complaint alleges that, in the April 9, 2007, Newsday article, Burness "drew defamatory contrasts between" Pressler and Duke's new lacrosse coach, John Danowski, saying the difference between the two coaches was "night and day."

The complaint also cites a June 7, 2007, statement to The Associated Press in which Burness wrote that Pressler's termination "was essential for the team to have a change of leadership in order to move forward."

"The defendant's devastating and false claim that Coach Pressler needed to be replaced in his capacity as the Duke men's lacrosse coach was intentional, malicious, defamatory and slanderous," the complaint said.

Pressler was forced to resign on April 5, 2006, shortly after Durham police began investigating the rape allegations. In March 2007, he and Duke reached an undisclosed financial settlement, which Pressler claims was violated when Burness made comments about him.

In Wednesday's filing, Pressler also asked to delete his previous request to rescind the confidential agreement between himself and the university.

Pressler is the only Duke official who lost a job as a result of the case, even though an internal university investigation concluded he was the only school employee to take significant action when accusations of wrongdoing – including disorderly conduct and public urination – emerged about the lacrosse team.

Defendants Blame Nifong in Players' Lawsuit

Meanwhile, in motions filed late Tuesday, the defendants named in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by three indicted and exonerated former lacrosse players ask that it be dismissed.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys fees and numerous changes in how the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.

In the filings, Durham police officers and Mike Nifong's former investigator, Linwood Wilson, place blame on the former district attorney.

They argue they are entitled to qualified immunity from the lawsuit because they were under Nifong's direction and that he had "ultimate responsibility" for the way the case was handled and for the indictments.

"The independent decisions of the district attorney to charge the plaintiffs – and (of) the grand jury to indict them – fully insulate Sgt. (Mark) Gottlieb from any federal civil liability," according to the filing for Gottlieb, who was the lead investigator in the criminal case.

"Particularly when the amended complaint affirmatively alleges that Sgt. Gottlieb shared all material information with the district attorney," it goes on to say.

The motion from DNA Security Inc., the private laboratory that conducted the second round of DNA tests on samples collected from 46 lacrosse players, also places blame on Nifong.

DNA Security President Richard Clark said the lab should be immune because it worked as an expert witness for the prosecution.

The motion states the lab conducted accurate testing and orally provided complete results to Nifong, and it was up to him to make sure all relevant or exculpatory information reached defense attorneys.

"The law is clear that the decision about what evidence to provide to (the defense) and when to provide it was Nifong's alone to make," the motion states.

Attorneys for the city of Durham said Nifong acted alone and as an employee of the state, not the city. It requested a dismissal, saying the plaintiffs do not state a claim against them upon which relief can be granted.

"The central fact of this case is that the Plaintiffs cannot recover against Mr. Nifong's employer – the State of North Carolina – because it has absolute immunity," the filing states. "As a result, Plaintiffs have resorted to overreaching conspiracy claims and other novel legal theories that attempt to impose legal liability on the City of Durham, Durham police officers and City administrators for the actions of an overzealous prosecutor.

"All this creativity is in aid of an effort to impose on Durham taxpayers untold millions of dollars in damages for Plaintiffs who were publicly exonerated and never spent a moment in jail."

Nifong, who's response to the lawsuit was also due Tuesday, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday, claiming a debt of $180.3 million.

He listed liabilities of $30 million each for the three indicted players and a potential of $30 million each for three unindicted players who filed a federal lawsuit against Nifong and others last month.