Durham County

Student sues Duke, claims counselor and boyfriend blocked rape investigation

Duke Chapel
Duke Chapel The Herald-Sun

Duke University is facing yet another lawsuit that alleges it mishandled a rape case.

Filed originally in state court and moved to federal court just before the Independence Day holiday, the new case alleges that a graduate student faced harassment and retaliation from university officials after telling them she’d been raped by the live-in boyfriend of a Duke Women’s Center counselor who works with victims of gender violence.

The woman’s name is being withheld because she hasn’t gone public with her claims other than in court. The Herald-Sun does not typically identify people alleging that they are victims of crimes.

Represented by Durham-based lawyer Bob Ekstrand, the graduate student’s claims the boyfriend told her he’d subsequently used the counselor’s “access privileges” at Duke to look up information about her, and that he and the counselor had worked with other people at Duke to “prevent any investigation” of his conduct.

Eventually, she was “placed on academic probation,” removed “from her curricular activities” and “falsely accused” of stalking the counselor, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit wound up in federal court at Duke’s request because it claims the university violated the graduate student’s civil rights. Though Ekstrand styled his original filing as a state-law case by citing a North Carolina anti-discrimination statute, Duke’s lawyers argued that it’s really anchored in the federal Title IX gender-discrimination law. That, they said, gives a federal judge authority to hear the case.

Duke officials aren’t commenting on the matter, with Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld invoking the university’s custom of “declin[ing] to comment on pending litigation.”

The case is among at least four lawsuits pending against Duke, in federal and state courts, that question its handling of sexual-misconduct complaints.

Two in state court, filed by current or former students Ciaran McKenna and Lewis McLeod, are from men accused of misconduct who say Duke broke its obligations to give them a fair hearing during its in-house student-discipline process.

The other two are in federal court. Both were filed by women who say they were attacked and then metaphorically victimized a second time by Duke officials pursuing some form of in-house cover-up. Ekstrand represents both women.

His other client says she was the victim of a “drug-facilitated rape” early this decade at the hands of two fellow students, one being the stepson of then-provost Peter Lange.

The new case doesn’t say when the graduate student was allegedly attacked, or about when any of the subsequent events happened. The woman’s name corresponds with that of a student listed in the university’s online directory.

She “reported the assault to police as a blind report,” the lawsuit says without specifying a date or naming the relevant law enforcement agency.

It does contend that Greg Stotsenberg, now the captain in charge of the Duke University Police Department’s detective unit, “falsely claimed to have carried out an investigation” of her report. He allegedly made “false and defamatory statements” that there was no evidence of rape or assault and the report was an attempt “to exact revenge.”

As a lawyer, Ekstrand’s been in the public eye since the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, when he wound up representing three members of the 2005-06 Duke men’s lacrosse team in a lawsuit against the university and city government over their handling of a false rape allegation lodged by a stripper hired for a team party. That lawsuit was settled out of court after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said many of its claims were out of bounds.

He also represented a former Duke student and rape victim who alleged university officials had duped her into transferring. That case was thrown out of court after a federal trial judge ruled that the known facts of the case didn’t support the suit’s legal claims.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg