By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Seven months after New York prosecutors dropped criminal charges against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, his lawyers will fight a civil lawsuit brought against him in a Bronx courtroom this week.
Lawyers for Strauss-Kahn and his accuser, hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, will wrangle on Wednesday over whether Strauss-Kahn's former IMF position grants him diplomatic immunity from the suit.
Diallo accused Strauss-Kahn of forcing her to perform oral sex in a luxury Manhattan hotel suite last May, leading to his arrest and ending his hopes for a French presidential bid. The criminal case eventually faltered due to prosecutors' concerns about her credibility as a witness.
The civil lawsuit, filed in August, represents Diallo's final chance to hold Strauss-Kahn legally accountable for what her lawyers called a "brutal" sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn has denied the allegations, and his lawyers have accused Diallo of financial motivation.
Under U.S. law, the civil lawsuit remains viable even after the dismissal of criminal charges. The standard of proof in civil cases is also less strict than in criminal prosecutions.
Wednesday's hearing will take place before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon, who will consider whether to dismiss the case based on Strauss-Kahn's claim of immunity. Neither Strauss-Kahn nor Diallo will appear in court.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers said in court papers that he enjoyed legal protection from both criminal and civil claims by virtue of his position as the IMF's top executive, even after he resigned May 18 in the days following his arrest.
Diallo's attorneys argue in court papers that Strauss-Kahn enjoyed "limited immunity" at best, a form of protection that would not shield him from criminal or civil prosecution in a sexual assault case. And they point out that the IMF did not assert immunity on Strauss-Kahn's behalf after his arrest.
When Strauss-Kahn was pulled from an Air France flight by New York police May 14, he told the officers he had diplomatic immunity, according to court documents. Hours later, however, he rescinded his assertion, saying he simply wanted to know whether he needed an attorney.
William Taylor, one of Strauss-Kahn's attorneys, declined to comment. He has previously said that Strauss-Kahn did not attempt to assert his immunity during the criminal case in order to "defend against the false charges and to clear his name."
Diallo's attorneys have argued that his failure to claim immunity when facing jail time undermines the validity of his current argument.
In any event, they wrote in court papers, Strauss-Kahn's legal team had failed to "establish that there is any acknowledgement amongst civilized nations that absolute immunity should be afforded to the heads of specialized agencies."
Diallo attorney Kenneth Thompson declined to comment, saying he would stand by the arguments in his legal papers.
Strauss-Kahn's legal troubles have persisted since his return to France last summer. Last month, he was held and questioned for two days by French authorities in connection with allegations that a prostitution ring organized by his business acquaintances supplied prostitutes to clients of Lille's luxury Carlton Hotel.
His French lawyer has said Strauss-Kahn did nothing wrong. He could still face a formal investigation in the case.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Brunnstrom)