The case was filed by Amaani Lyle, a former writer’s assistant for the TV show ‘Friends’ (See CA High Court Takes Workplace Speech Case ). Lyle claimed the vulgar language and graphic antics used by the show’s male writers during her four-month employment in 1999 subjected her to a hostile work environment. The Recorder reports that she said the vulgarities had nothing to do with the show – which was much tamer on air – and was simply lewd, frat-boy entertainment for the writers.
The writers and Warner Brothers Television Productions responded by claiming that dirty talk and lewd actions were part of the free-rolling, creative process that made ‘Friends’ one of the most popular shows ever on TV, according to the Recorder.
Several justices seemed to lean in favor of the writers, noting that Lyle had been warned before she accepted the job that she would be subjected to language of a sexual content. “If she’s told there’s going to be sexual banter back and forth – and that happens – where’s the alteration to conditions of employment?” Chief Justice Ronald George asked a lawyer who represented Lyle.
The state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits harassment so pervasive that it alters some condition of an employee’s job.
To George’s argument, Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos Moreno asked whether writers had absolute immunity from harassment claims or if there were limits on what could be said in writers’ meetings. Werdegar seemed to have some problems with the intensity of some of the talk Lyle endured, and although the employee had been warned about “sexual themes and low-brow humor,” Werdegar said, “I’m not sure ‘low-brow humor’ would have prepared her for what she was exposed to in that room. Are there no limitations short of criminal conduct?”
Adam Levin, a partner in the firm that represented the writers and Warner Brothers, said there are limits, such as not being able to direct racial epithets at minority employees.
While one justice tried to argue that general sexual language was enough to constitute harassment, others disagreed, saying that statutory language requires that harassment be “because of” a person’s gender.
An attorney arguing for the California Employment Lawyers Association as an amicus for Lyle, told the justices that they needed to decide whether the abuse suffered by Lyle was a barrier to equal employment. Justice Carol Corrigan asked whether that meant women “are entitled to a more genteel work environment than men.” To which the attorney said, “The focus is not on gentility, but on equal opportunity.”
A ruling in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, S125171, is due in 90 days.