Winthrop House tutors Carl L. Miller and Valencia Miller filed a lawsuit against Eliot House Faculty Dean Gail A. O’Keefe in Massachusetts Superior Court on Thursday, alleging that O’Keefe made defamatory statements both about their “professional reputation” and their response to a confrontation between them and a College student on April 3.
The Millers’ complaint and jury trial demand charges O’Keefe with two counts of defamation resulting from an email she wrote Monday evening to Eliot affiliates and a text she wrote to Winthrop Resident Dean Linda D. M. Chavers earlier this semester. The Millers are seeking monetary damages and “such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable.”
The first count of defamation in the Millers’ suit alleges that O’Keefe’s text to Chavers included “false and defamatory statements” about the Millers. Specifically, the Millers claim O’Keefe misrepresented the nature of their decision to leave Eliot, where they previously served as tutors before moving to Winthrop.
O’Keefe allegedly wrote to Chavers on March 7 that the Millers were asked to leave Eliot at a mid-year meeting in 2012, according to the complaint. The complaint states that the Millers informed O’Keefe they planned to leave that year and stayed through the rest of the 2012 spring semester “to maintain continuity for the Eliot community and limit undue stress.”
“I’m happy to explain further, but Carl and Valencia were asked to leave Eliot House at their mid-year meeting in 2012,” O’Keefe wrote in the text. “We have plenty of documentation, and indeed, current tutors here who remember quite well the precipitating circumstances.”
The complaint states that O’Keefe’s statements in her text to Chavers “targeted” the Millers “because of the perception that Plaintiffs supported Dean Sullivan’s representation of Mr. Weinstein.”
Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. has recently faced student backlash for his decision to represent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in his Manhattan sexual abuse case.
O’Keefe wrote the text to Chavers shortly after Carl Miller called Harvard police to report graffiti on the exterior of Winthrop House, according to the complaint. The graffiti consisted of slogans criticizing Sullivan’s decision, including “Down w Sullivan!” and “Whose Side Are You On?”
Hours before the vandal spray painted Winthrop, Danu A.K Mudannayake ’20 — an activist who has been outspoken in her calls for Sullivan to step down from his faculty dean position — and a group of other College students distributed flyers in Winthrop. The complaint states that Miller saw Mudannayake and the other students that night and exited the building when they did. Mudannayake wrote in an online post Tuesday that Miller followed her throughout Winthrop House.
Mudannayake, who is also a Crimson design editor, has called for Sullivan to resign in blog posts and at protests, arguing his representation of Weinstein conflicts with the responsibilities of a faculty dean.
Chavers declined to comment on the lawsuit, writing in an email that she is “far too busy supporting and ensuring the personal and academic well-being of the students of Winthrop House to comment on such matters.”
The second count of defamation stems from an email O’Keefe sent over the Eliot House listserv Monday. In the message — which the complaint quotes in full — O’Keefe wrote that the Millers acted “unprofessionally and dishonestly” by filing a police report against Mudannayake on April 3.
“The two Winthrop tutors acted totally unprofessionally and dishonestly. Here at Eliot we would never condone nor allow tutors to make a public attack on an undergraduate, let alone in such a blatant and clumsy political way,” O’Keefe wrote Monday night. “The College should be a place where students can protest without fear of retribution, intimidation or bullying. Eliot House is a place where we stand by your right to be heard.”
The complaint states that O’Keefe’s email over the Eliot listserv also “targeted” the Millers “because of the perception that Plaintiffs supported Dean Sullivan’s representation of Mr. Weinstein.”
Mudannayake — who also filed a police report April 3 — and the Millers offered divergent accounts of what happened in the Winthrop dining hall that evening. Mudannayake said Carl Miller photographed and videotaped her as she ate dinner with a friend; the Millers wrote in emailed statements that Mudannayake harassed them and their child.
The Millers’ suit comes two days after their lawyer — George J. Leontire — sent a letter to Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and University President Lawrence S. Bacow, among other University administrators, to criticize O’Keefe’s email to Eliot residents. In the letter, Leontire wrote that the Millers planned to file a Title IX complaint about the confrontation with Mudannayake.
“To my knowledge, no Master/Faculty Dean has ever used his or her superior faculty platform to publicly attack and defame a tutor,” Leontire wrote. “Dean O’Keefe’s actions represent an affront to the norms and values that Faculty Deans strive to uphold.”
O’Keefe declined to comment on the suit.
Mudannayake, Sullivan, and the Millers did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.