NEW YORK – A hotel maid's sexual assault lawsuit against Dominique Strauss-Kahn can go forward to trial, a judge ruled Tuesday, rebuffing the former International Monetary Fund leader's diplomatic-immunity claim.
Bronx state Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon's ruling kept alive the civil case that emerged from a May 2011 hotel-room encounter that also spurred now-dismissed criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn, then a French presidential hopeful. The episode was the first in a series of allegations about his sexual conduct that sank his political career.
The housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, 33, said Strauss-Kahn, 63, tried to rape her when she arrived to clean his Manhattan hotel suite. Strauss-Kahn has denied doing anything violent during the encounter.
Prosecutors dropped the criminal charges last summer, saying they had developed doubts about Diallo's trustworthiness because she had lied about her background and her actions right after the alleged attack. Diallo has insisted she told the truth about what happened in the encounter itself.
Strauss-Kahn resigned his IMF job days after his arrest, and he didn't assert immunity from the criminal prosecution; his lawyers have said he was focused then on trying to exonerate himself. But after the lawsuit was filed, about three months later, they said he should have immunity from the civil case.
Invoking an American sports metaphor, the judge said their argument amounted to a "Hail Mary" pass, and one that raised a question of fairness.
"Strauss-Kahn cannot eschew immunity (in the criminal case) in an effort to clear his name only to embrace it now to deny Ms. Diallo the opportunity to clear hers," the judge wrote.
Diallo's lawyers issued a statement calling the ruling "well-reasoned and articulate."
"We have said all along that Strauss Kahn's desperate plea for immunity was a tactic designed to delay these proceedings, and we now look forward to holding him accountable for the brutal sexual assault that he committed," attorneys Kenneth P. Thompson and Douglas H. Wigdor said in a statement.
Strauss-Kahn's attorneys said they were disappointed and mulling their next move.
"He is determined to fight the claims brought against him, and we are confident that he will prevail," lawyers William Taylor III and Amit Mehta said in a statement.
They had made what experts say was a novel, two-pronged argument: that Strauss-Kahn was entitled to a broad form of immunity that covers even actions not taken in an official capacity, and that it extended even after he resigned his job because he had to stay in the United States during the criminal case.
They pointed to a 1947 United Nations agreement that afforded that sweeping form of immunity to heads of "specialized agencies," including the International Monetary Fund. Although the United States didn't sign that agreement, Strauss-Kahn's attorneys said it has gained such broad acceptance elsewhere that it has become what's known as "customary international law."
Dismissing the case "may seem like an unfair result to some, but it's the result the law compels," Mehta said at a March hearing.
But Diallo's lawyers said the immunity claim was off-base. They stressed that the U.S. didn't join in the 1947 agreement, and that an IMF spokesman said shortly after Strauss-Kahn's arrest that he didn't have immunity because he was on personal business during his encounter with Diallo. Strauss-Kahn was visiting his daughter in New York.
"Dominique Strauss-Kahn thinks he's above the law," Thompson said after the March hearing.
The judge noted that the IMF's own rules limit its officials' immunity to their official actions, and he said it was a stretch to claim Strauss-Kahn kept that protection for the months after his resignation.
When the IMF and various other international bodies were created after World War II, there were questions about whether their leaders would enjoy the broad immunity long extended to ambassadors, for example, or instead would have protection only for their official actions, said Margaret E. McGuinness, a former U.S. foreign service officer who is now the co-director of the Center for International and Comparative Law at the St. John's University School of Law.
"The idea was that this functional immunity goes to letting them do their jobs within these international organizations, but (that) they're not above following the rules more generally," she said.
McKeon's ruling was first reported by The New York Post.
The Associated Press generally doesn't name people who report being sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Diallo has done.
After Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York, a French writer came forward to say Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her during a 2003 interview. Paris prosecutors said that accusation was too old to try, but French authorities have pursued an unrelated allegation that he was involved in a hotel prostitution ring including prominent city figures and police in Lille.
In March, he was handed preliminary charges, which mean authorities have reason to believe a crime was committed but allow more time for investigation.
His French lawyer said the married Strauss-Kahn engaged in "libertine" acts but did nothing legally wrong and is being unfairly targeted for his extramarital sex life.
Follow Jennifer Peltz at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz