Fired Oprah Ex-Headmistress Sues for Defamation

UPDATED 10/04/2008 at 05:15 PM EDT Originally published 10/04/2008 at 12:00 PM EDT

Fired Oprah Ex-Headmistress Sues for Defamation
Oprah Winfrey (left) and Nomvuyo Mzamane
Steve Granitz/WireImage; Dennis Kleiman
Nomvuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of Oprah Winfrey's South African Leadership Academy for Girls, filed a defamation lawsuit against the TV star in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Friday in an attempt to salvage her professional reputation, PEOPLE has learned exclusively.

The civil suit, filed by attorney Tim McGowan, says Winfrey "launched what amounted to a defamatory campaign" against Mzamane late last year by implying that Mzamane is "untrustworthy, failed the students of the academy, did not care about the students at the academy, knew of alleged physical and sexual abuse at the academy and participated in a cover-up of the alleged abuse," according to legal papers.

The suit cites comments to the media Winfrey made last October and November in the wake of a dorm matron at the school being charged with assaulting and abusing students.

Mzamane, 39, also filed a defamation suit against the blog the Huffington Post and publicity expert Joan Stewart for a Nov. 19, 2007, posting by Stewart saying Mzamane was charged in connection with the scandal.

Mzamane has said there was no cover-up at the school and she knew nothing about the allegations, which she learned about while on a business trip to the U.S.

Seeks Quarter Million, Plus Damages

Mzamane was the assistant head of operations at a private school in Philadelphia when she says Winfrey recruited her to run the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. She started work on Dec. 31, 2006.

Since her termination, Mzamane has not been able to find comparable work and suffers from "depression, anxiety and insomnia," the suit states. She is asking for $50,000 for each of five different claims, including defamation by innuendo and intentional infliction of emotional distress, plus unspecified punitive damages.

Joan Stewart Statement

A rep for Winfrey did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and neither did the Huffington Post. Joan Stewart has issued the following statement:

"I've learned that in my November 7, 2007, blog post, 'Oprah Scandal: A Lesson in Crisis Management," and in a column I wrote for Huffington Post on November 19, 2007, I inadvertently erred by saying that the former head mistress of Oprah Winfrey's Dream Academy was charged with a crime. I deeply regret that error and apologize to former head mistress Nomvuyo Mzamane.

"Journalists, including those on blogs, make mistakes, and if Ms. Mzamane had contacted me about that directly, I would have corrected it online – with an apology – immediately. I have not, in fact, been contacted by her or served with a lawsuit. I'm a firm believer in full compliance with the law, with the Public Relations Society of America's Code of Ethics and with the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, and know that I was in compliance with all three in this case."

A trial for the accused dorm matron, Virginia Makopo, will resume on Wednesday, Oct. 8. She has pleaded not guilty to abusing and assaulting six girls.

With additional reporting by LIZA HAMM

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