Pressler can pursue Duke suit

The state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Mike Pressler, the former Duke University lacrosse coach, could pursue his claims of slander and libel against his former employer.

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 under contracts he had signed while working at the school.

After learning of the unanimous opinion issued by the three-judge panel, a top Duke administrator said the university would continue to fight Pressler's allegations.

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

Jay Trehy, a Raleigh lawyer representing Pressler, said the decision could mean that he and his client could soon begin taking statements from Duke officials and have access to university internal correspondence and memos about the lacrosse case.

"This was an effort to deny Mike Pressler his right to a jury trial," Trehy said Tuesday. "I'm not surprised by the court's decision, and I'm not surprised it was unanimous."

Duke still could petition the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision.

But Trehy was preparing for a Sept. 15 status review hearing in Durham County Superior Court.

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.

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 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."

In that article, the suit contends, Burness described Danowski as a "mensch," a Yiddish word for a person of great integrity and honor that Pressler's lawyers defined in their brief.

The second comment that Pressler complained about came in June, when The Associated Press quoted Burness as saying, "It was essential for the team to have a change of leadership in order to move forward."

Since losing his Duke job, Pressler has written and promoted a book about the lacrosse case. He now coaches at Bryant University in Rhode Island.