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California Supreme Court Rejects Friends Sexual Harassment Claim

May 1, 2006

The Supreme Court’s Decision

On April 20, 2006, the California Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated ruling in Lyle v. Warner Bros., known as “the Friends case.”  In a unanimous decision, the high court found that plaintiff failed to state a claim for sexual harassment because (1) use of sexual or vulgar speech or offensive conduct does not, on its own, violate the California Fair Employment and Housing Act’s (“FEHA”) prohibition against harassment because of sex; and (2) the plaintiff’s allegations did not amount to severe or pervasive conduct that altered the terms or conditions of her employment.  Central to the court’s ruling was the fact that the Friends production was a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.

The plaintiff, Amaani Lyle, worked as a writer’s assistant on Friends for four months, after which she was fired because of problems with her typing and transcription.  She then filed suit against three of the male comedy writers, the network, studio, and others, asserting among other things that the writers’ use of sexually coarse and vulgar language and conduct, including the recounting of their own sexual experiences, constituted harassment based on sex within the meaning of the FEHA.  The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment on plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim and the California Supreme Court thereafter granted review to address whether the use of sexually coarse and vulgar language in the workplace can constitute harassment based on sex within the meaning of the FEHA, and if so, whether the imposition of liability under the FEHA for such speech would infringe on defendants’ federal and state constitutional rights of free speech.

In overruling the appellate court and granting summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim, the Supreme Court first determined that plaintiff could not meet her prima facie burden of showing that the coarse language used in the writers’ room constituted harassment because of sex.  Indeed, plaintiff acknowledged that none of the comments were either about her or directed at her and admitted that both male and female writers recounted their own sexual exploits in the writers’ room.  The Court ruled that while the conduct was tinged with sexual content and sexual connotations, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that members of one sex were exposed to disadvantageous terms and conditions of employment to which members of the other sex were not.  In so finding, the Court reasoned that “it is the disparate treatment of an employee on the basis of sex – not the mere discussion of sex or use of vulgar language – that is the essence of a sexual harassment claim.”

The Court went on to rule that, in any event, Lyle’s allegations did not amount to conduct severe enough or sufficiently pervasive as to alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile or abusive work environment.  The Court first stated that a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim by a plaintiff who was not personally subjected to offensive remarks and touchings requires a higher showing than a claim by an employee who was actually the subject of comments or conduct.  The Court then focused on the creative atmosphere necessary to the production of an adult-oriented comedy.  The Court was unimpressed by plaintiff’s contention that much of the sexual speech never made it into actual scripts.  Instead, the court reasoned, “the fact that certain discussion did not lead to specific jokes or dialogue airing on the show merely reflected the creative process at work and did not serve to convert such nondirected conduct into harassment because of sex.”

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

Know Your Workplace

While the Friends decision is clearly a victory for California employers, it does not apply equally to all workplaces.  Rather, the Court based much of its reasoning on the fact that this was a workplace involved in the production of an adult-oriented show that dealt with sexual jokes and discussions.  The Court explicitly noted that sexually coarse and vulgar language in the workplace could constitute actionable harassment in other circumstances.

Communicate With Your Candidates

The Court emphasized that plaintiff had been warned during her job interview that she would be listening to sexual jokes and discussions and transcribing those jokes and discussions for use in scripts, and that she had assured her interviewer this would not make her uncomfortable.  The lesson for employers is to be frank with employees from the outset about their job responsibilities, particularly if they are likely to be exposed to sexual discussions or innuendo as a necessary part of their work.  Communicate these expectations and document the employee’s acknowledgment.

Develop Appropriate Safeguards

Every employer should have a comprehensive written anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure and should institute harassment training for its employees.  These safeguards are vital to defending any harassment claim, but become particularly important where the employer is acknowledging that some of the conduct occurred, but arguing that it does not constitute actionable harassment.  In the Friends case, the Court noted that plaintiff never complained about the harassment, though she had the opportunity to do so. 

If you have any questions about the California Supreme Court’s ruling or its application to your workplace, please feel free to contact any KM&M attorney.