Oprah Winfrey wants a court to dismiss or order arbitration in a defamation lawsuit filed by the ex-headmistress of her girls school in South Africa.
Nomvuyo Mzamane sued over remarks the media mogul made following sex-abuse complaints at the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, near Johannesburg. A dorm matron who worked under Mzamane was charged with abusing six students last year.
According to the lawsuit, filed last month in Philadelphia, Winfrey falsely implied that Mzamane wasn't trustworthy through comments about the need to clean house and remarks such as, "I thought she cared about the girls of South Africa."
Her lawsuit seeks more than $250,000 on five defamation and related counts from Winfrey and her production companies.
Winfrey denies making any false or defamatory statements and argues that the federal suit should not proceed in Pennsylvania.
"Read in context, these statements suggest no more than they actually say — that the abuse incident was used as an opportunity to bring new personnel into the school — and they cannot be twisted into anything defamatory," her lawyers said in a response filed Friday.
Mzamane, a native of Lesotho, previously held a leadership post at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia and returned to the area after her contract wasn't renewed at Winfrey's school. Mzamane says she has been unable to find work because of Winfrey's comments.
Winfrey asked the court either to dismiss the suit for jurisdictional reasons or, in keeping with the school contract, to order arbitration. She and her companies do no business in Pennsylvania, according to the response from lawyers Carl A. Salono of Philadelphia and Charles S. Sims of New York.
"The fact that her statements were reported from the press in South Africa around the world does not support, and rather contradicts, any contention that she targeted Pennsylvania in making her comments," they wrote.
Winfrey recruited Mzamane for the $150,000-a-year post in late 2006. Mzamane worked from about January 2007 through October 2007, when she learned, during a meeting with Winfrey in Chicago, that allegations of sexual and physical abuse had surfaced and she was being put on leave.
Mzamane's lawyer, Timothy McGowan, has said that Winfrey herself spent considerable time at the school — sometimes staying for as long as a month — and questioned why she didn't learn about the problem and take action earlier. Winfrey has said the girls may have been taught to "put on happy faces" and not complain when she appeared on campus.
Former dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo has been charged with abusing six students, allegedly trying to kiss and fondle the victims, and kicking and hitting some of them. She has pleaded not guilty to 14 related charges in a South African court.
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