On April 20, 2006, the California Supreme Court issued an eagerly awaited decision in the case of Amani Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, the company which wrote and produced the popular television show Friends.
The plaintiff, an African-American woman, was hired by Warner Brothers to attend and transcribe show writers’ meetings. She was terminated after four months of employment because of problems with her typing and transcription. Subsequently, she sued, asserting a host of employment-related causes of action, including racial and sexual harassment, race and sex discrimination, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and retaliation for making complaints of purportedly unlawful behavior.
Following the trial court’s dismissal of the case and the Court of Appeal’s partial reversal of the matter, the California Supreme Court granted certiorari primarily to consider Lyle’s claim for sexual harassment.
In support of her harassment claim, Lyle alleged that – while attending writers’ meetings – she was subjected to sexually coarse and vulgar behavior. For example, Lyle contends that show writers would regularly discuss their sexual histories, fantasies, and preferences in graphic detail, often noting their desire to have sex with certain Friends actresses. Further, one writer allegedly maintained an anatomically correct "coloring book" depicting female cheerleaders "with their legs spread open." In addition, several writers made "masturbatory gestures" and told frequent jokes about the actresses’ purported sexual practices and proclivities. Importantly, Lyle admitted that none of the sexual comments were directed towards her. She also conceded she was advised before accepting the position that she would encounter graphic, sex-based humor.
The writers denied many of Lyle’s allegations and otherwise noted that Friends is a program about young, sexually adventurous adults. Sexual humor, innuendo, wordplay, and gestures are a regular part of the show. Thus, realistic discussions of sex were needed to write convincing scripts. The writers further argued that since none of the comments were directed towards the plaintiff, she could not claim she was targeted for discriminatory conduct because of her gender.
Agreeing with the writers, the California Supreme Court found that no reasonable jury could conclude Lyle was subjected to "severe and pervasive" harassment on account of her sex. Accordingly, the high court directed that the case be dismissed.
In explaining its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that California law certainly prohibits the creation of a work environment that is hostile or abusive on the basis of sex. However, "the mere discussion of sex or use of vulgar language" does not, standing alone, necessarily support a valid claim of sexual harassment. The Court stated that "a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim is not established where a supervisor or coworker simply uses crude or inappropriate language in front of employees or draws a vulgar picture, without directing sexual innuendoes or gender-related language toward a plaintiff of toward women in general." The allegations of alleged improper conduct must be examined in their context and with the understanding that the laws against discrimination and harassment do not constitute a "civility code… designed to rid the workplace of vulgarity."
In Lyle’s case, she worked for a production company that created a humorous, sex-themed situation comedy. Further, as the Court noted repeatedly, Lyle admitted "that none of the three male writers’ offensive conduct involved, or was aimed at her" and "there was nothing to suggest the defendants engaged in this particular behavior to make plaintiff uncomfortable or self-conscious, or to intimidate, ridicule, or insult her…." In addition, the sexual banter was not purposeless. It was used as a means to generate scripts and jokes for the show. Thus, the Court concluded that "the facts plaintiff offered were simply insufficient to establish" a legal violation.
The Lyle decision is important for California employers because it affirms that legal liability for sexual harassment should not be imposed merely as a result of sexual jokes and banter, where such conduct is not aimed at a particular employee and is not designed to denigrate the employee or a particular protected group in general. However, in its concluding remarks, the Supreme Court cautioned that "we do not suggest the use of sexually coarse and vulgar language in the workplace can never constitute harassment because of sex." Instead, all such claims must be examined in their context.
Employee representatives will likely argue that Lyle should be limited to its facts because most employers cannot realistically assert that workplace sexual banter is an important and necessary part of their business. However, the basic legal principle set forth by the Supreme Court remains clear: In order to constitute unlawful conduct, sexual banter or coarse behavior must be somehow directed at the individual employee or to a protected group.