Mzamane v. Winfrey

Decision Date15 March 2010
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 08-4884.
Citation693 F. Supp.2d 442
PartiesLerato Nomvuyo MZAMANE, Plaintiff, v. Oprah WINFREY, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Timothy McGowan, W. Matthew Reber, Christina M. Rideout, Kelley Jasons McGowan Spinelli & Hanna, LLP, Philadelphia, PA, for Plaintiff.

Charles L. Babcock, Nancy W. Hamilton, Jackson Walker, Houston, TX, Daniel Segal, Rebecca Santoro, William T. Hangley, Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin, Philadelphia, PA, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, District Judge.

                                                           TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION............................................................. 461
                II. BACKGROUND............................................................... 461
                    A. Facts................................................................. 461
                       1. Plaintiff's Background ............................................ 461
                       2. Winfrey's Background .............................................. 462
                       3. Background of OWLAG................................................ 462
                       4. Plaintiffs Employment Relationship with OWLAG...................... 462
                       5. Allegations of Abuse of OWLAG Students............................. 463
                       6. Winfrey's Response to the Events at OWLAG.......................... 464
                           i. October 20, 2007 Meeting ...................................... 465
                           ii. November 5, 2007 Press Conference............................. 465
                        7. Aftermath of Winfrey's Comments................................... 465
                     B. Procedural History................................................... 466
                III. DISCUSSION.............................................................. 466
                     A. Summary Judgment Standard............................................ 466
                     B. Choice of Law Analysis............................................... 467
                        1. Pennsylvania versus Illinois...................................... 469
                            i. Defamation.................................................... 470
                           ii. False Light................................................... 473
                          iii. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.................. 473
                        2. Pennsylvania versus South Africa.................................. 473
                            i. Defamation.................................................... 473
                           ii. False Light................................................... 474
                
                         iii. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress................... 475
                        3. Pennsylvania Law is Consistent with Due Process................... 475
                     C. Defamation Analysis.................................................. 476
                        1. Pennsylvania Defamation Law....................................... 476
                        2. Analysis under Pennsylvania Law .................................. 478
                            i. Capable of Defamatory Meaning................................. 479
                           ii. Of and Concerning Plaintiff................................... 479
                          iii. Specific Statements at Issue.................................. 480
                               a. October Meeting............................................ 480
                                  (1) Actionable statements ................................. 480
                                  (2) Non-actionable statements ............................. 490
                               b. November Press Conference.................................. 490
                                  (1) Actionable statements ................................. 490
                                  (2) Non-actionable statements ............................. 495
                        3. First Amendment Implications...................................... 497
                            i. Plaintiff's Status as a Public Figure......................... 497
                           ii. Actual Malice................................................. 505
                     D. False Light Analysis ................................................ 510
                     E. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Analysis................ 512
                IV. CONCLUSION............................................................... 512
                
I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane ("Plaintiff") brings this action for defamation, and related causes of action, stemming from comments made by Oprah Winfrey ("Winfrey") regarding Plaintiff's performance as headmistress of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls ("OWLAG"). Plaintiff claims that she suffered significant damage to her professional reputation as a result of Winfrey's comments.

Before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court concludes that, after a conflict of laws analysis, Pennsylvania law applies to Plaintiff's substantive claims. The Court further concludes that under Pennsylvania law certain of the statements made by Winfrey at a meeting with parents of OWLAG students in October 2007 and at a news conference in November 2007, are capable of defamatory meaning and "of and concerning" Plaintiff, that under First Amendment law Plaintiff is a limited public figure, but that if believed by the jury, Plaintiff has pointed to sufficient evidence in the record to satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard for actual malice. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false light will proceed to the jury, however, judgment will be entered in Defendants' favor as to Plaintiff's claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

II. BACKGROUND
A. Facts
1. Plaintiff's Background

Plaintiff was born in Teyateyaneng, Lesotho1 in 1969 and in 1990 graduated from the University of Jos in Nigeria with a bachelor's degree in special education. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 9-10.) In 1992, she obtained a Master's Degree from St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont, during which time she earned her MEd in Curriculum Development and Instruction as well as her K-6 Teaching License. (Id. ¶ 10.) From 1992 to 1995, Plaintiff taught the fourth grade class at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca, New York. (Id. ¶ 13.) Plaintiff was accepted into Cornell University's doctoral program in education in 1995. (Id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiff studied Educational Administration, however, she ultimately did not earn a PhD. (Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane Dep. 385:5-12, Aug. 24, 2009.)

From 2000 through 2004, Plaintiff worked as Vice Principal, Dean of Faculty and Academic Dean at Germantown Friends Lower School in Philadelphia ("Germantown"), and was promoted to Assistant Head of School for Operations for Germantown in 2004. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16-17.) Plaintiff continued her employment at Germantown until December 2006, at which time she accepted a position as a Consultant for Learner Education and Development at OWLAG. (Id. ¶ 18.)

2. Winfrey's Background

Winfrey is the founder of co-defendants Harpo Productions, Inc. and Harpo, Inc. (collectively, "Harpo"). She is the creator and host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which is a syndicated television program that is produced by Harpo and appears on local television stations throughout the United States and the world. The Oprah Winfrey Show has been rated the number one television show in American television for twenty-four seasons. (Oprah Winfrey Dep., 18:12-14, Oct. 6, 2009.) Winfrey is involved intimately in running the operations of Harpo, which focuses on media and communications, including television, radio, and a magazine. (Id. at 15:17-22.) In 2009, Winfrey was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. See The Time 100: The World's Most Influential People, Time Magazine, May 11, 2009.

3. Background of OWLAG

OWLAG is a private academy opened by Winfrey in South Africa, and run by the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation (the "Foundation"). OWLAG provides education for children from impoverished families. (Winfrey Dep. 12:3-13:6.) OWLAG began as a partnership between the Foundation and the government of South Africa. (Id. 18:23-19:3.) OWLAG has 28 buildings on a 52-acre campus in a small town called Henley-on-Klip near Johannesburg, South Africa. The annual operating costs for OWLAG are approximately $10,000,000. These costs are funded by the Foundation. Winfrey herself was involved with multiple aspects of the planning at OWLAG, such as the architecture and construction of the school. (Id. 14:13-15.)

At OWLAG, students live in dormitories on the school's campus and are supervised by employees present in the dorms (the "Dorm Parents") at the conclusion of the students' academic day. At the time OWLAG opened it did not have Dorm Parents in place. (Id. 37:7-17.) Winfrey herself was not involved with the hiring of the Dorm Parents. (Id. 37:10-17.)

The school opened on January 2, 2007, with an approximate enrollment of 150 seventh and eighth grade female students. (J. Samuel Decl. ¶ 2.) The opening of OWLAG attracted media attention, including coverage by the Philadelphia Inquirer and CNN. (See Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. Ex. C.)

4. Plaintiff's Employment Relationship with OWLAG

According to Plaintiff, at the time she accepted the consultancy position at OWLAG in December 2006, her understanding was that she would be mentored by the Interim Head of Academy, Joan Countryman, and would ascend to the position of the Head of Academy at some point in 2008. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 22-23.) Plaintiff entered into her employment agreement for the consultancy position on December 28, 2006, however, within several days of her arrival in South Africa, she was appointed to the position of the Head of Academy ("Headmistress") in place of Ms. Countryman. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff entered into a written employment contract with the Foundation, which provided a fixed term of employment from January 11, 2007 to December 31, 2007. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. Ex. D.)

As Headmistress, Plaintiff's "charge was to be responsible for the girls and the curriculum and the residential life of the girls at the school." (Winfrey Dep. 49:9-11.) Plaintiff was...

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