Judge explains dismissal of rape victim’s lawsuit

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 04:12 PM

A rape victim’s lawsuit against Duke University fell apart because the facts of the case for the most part undermined its legal arguments, a federal judge said in explaining why she dismissed the case.

Critically, former Duke student Katharine Rouse never claimed Duke’s failure to investigate the fraternity that allegedly hosted the party she was attacked at in 2007 “had any influence on her decision to take a leave of absence” and eventually transfer, Eagles said in a Dec. 21 written opinion.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles filed the opinion 11 days after she told lawyers she would dismiss Rouse’s lawsuit instead of allowing a jury trial to begin.

Rouse and her attorney, Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand, claimed that Duke violated federal-law safeguards against gender discrimination by duping her into transferring and by failing to investigate the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Ekstrand contended that Duke halted its probe of the fraternity after find out that one of its key donors, natural-gas magnate Aubrey McClendon, through a shell corporation owned the Gattis Street house where the party occurred.

But federal court rulings in general caution against “second-guessing the disciplinary decisions of school administrators,” and in this case Rouse had attributed her decision to leave Duke to other factors, Eagles said.

Moreover, there was no evidence that Duke’s handling of the fraternity “caused her to undergo sexual harassment or made her liable or vulnerable to it,” Eagles said.

As for the transfer, Eagles said the evidence in the case “consistently and directly contradicts” the claim that Rouse was duped into transferring, a move that under Duke policy meant she couldn’t return to Duke for undergraduate studies.

Rouse’s own testimony, offered via deposition, was that she never told the dean who handled the matter “that her enrollment at another institution was temporary or just for a semester” or that she “had any intention of returning to Duke,” the judge said.

Given that, there was no discrimination inherent in the form letter Duke sent Rouse to confirm that she’d severed ties with the school, Eagles said.

Eagles said there was also “no basis for imputing liability to Duke” in comments Vice President for Students Affairs Larry Moneta allegedly made about the incident in a contemporaneous television interview.

Moneta is said to have called it “part of the reality of collegiate life,” but because Ekstrand couldn’t produce a recording of the interview, Eagles chalked up the report as hearsay.

Also, there was no evidence of its creating or worsening a hostile environment for Rouse, the judge said, noting that Rouse testified that she hadn’t known of the alleged comment until March 2008, after she’d already transferred to Hofstra University.

Rouse’s attacker, Michael Jermaine Burch, wasn’t a Duke student. He was arrested and eventually sentenced to prison, but could get out in January. Rouse went public about the case in an interview with New York newspaper Newsday in 2009, soon after Burch’s sentencing.