In a strongly-worded opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, a three-judge panel tossed out a majority of the claims filed by several former players of the Duke Lacrosse team. The high-profile lawsuits were brought by former Duke players that were falsely accused – and for three of the players, falsely indicted – of raping and kidnapping a stripper during a party. The players sought damages against the City of Durham, its police department, and individual officials, for the injuries they claim to have incurred because of the false accusations and indictments against them. The Court’s dramatic opinion in concurrence stated that not dismissing the claims “would portend a sorry end to a sorry saga.” Evans v. Chalmers, et al.
In a situation that garnered international media attention, three former players of the Duke team were indicted for first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense, and kidnapping after a woman falsely accused them of raping her at party for which she was hired to perform as a stripper. The former prosecutor for the City of Durham was publicly disbarred when it was discovered that he purposefully withheld evidence that would have exonerated the men. The former prosecutor quickly filed for personal bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the three indicted players, as well as several other players, brought lawsuits seeking damages under Section 1983 and state common law against a host of defendants, including the city and individual police officers.
When defendants filed motions to dismiss the players’ claims against them, the U.S. District Court in North Carolina allowed the former players’ claims to proceed to the next stage in the litigation. However, in a strong opinion from the Fourth Circuit, much of the District Court’s ruling was reversed, and the majority of the players’ claims tossed out. The Circuit Court seemed shocked that certain claims were not knocked out by the District Court earlier, noting that “logic would seem to compel” their dismissal. Evans v. Chalmers, et al.
The most critical part of the Circuit Court’s decision (which exceeds 55 pages) came when the Court tossed out all of the players’ federal claims, including the three-indicted players’ claim against police detectives for malicious prosecution under Section 1983. The three players allege that police detectives conspired with the disbarred prosecutor by creating false evidence against them in order to indict the men before the grand jury. However, the Court disagreed. Even though the evidence was false, and it did cause the players to be unlawfully seized, and the players were ultimately exonerated (which are all necessary elements for a malicious prosecution claim), the Court held that it was the prosecutor, and not the individual officers, that caused such an illegal seizure. In other words, the players could not sue the individual officers because it was the prosecutor that sought the indictment, not the officers. Nonetheless, the Court did indicate that if the officers had pressured the prosecutor to seek the indictment or if the officers had provided the prosecutor with misleading evidence, then the officers too could be held liable for their acts. In this case, however, there was no indication from the players that the officers misled or pressured the prosecutor.
Although all of the federal claims were dismissed, some claims under North Carolina law, including violations of the player’s Constitutional rights under state law, remain intact. Given the high-profile nature of the case, it would not be surprising if most (if not all) of the former players sought to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court.