May 1, 2006 California Supreme Court Rules on <em>Friends</em> Case

Summary

As previewed in Paul, Plevin’s February 23, 2006 E-Update, the California Supreme Court recently issued a decision in the so-called “Friends” case, Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions. This is one of the important employment cases that the Supreme Court is considering this term, and it gives employers a glimpse of hope.

In Lyle, a writer’s assistant for the popular TV show Friends sued the show’s producer for, among other things, creating a hostile work environment based on the sexual comments, discussion, and other acts that occurred in and out of script writing sessions for the show. The court concluded that the plaintiff had insufficient evidence to take her case to a jury.

Details

First, the court determined that the plaintiff had produced no evidence of a connection between her sex and the alleged inappropriate behavior. Importantly, the court stated 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.” Notably, none of the conduct at issue in this case, including retelling sexual escapades and mocking masturbation, was directed at the plaintiff. Further, there was no evidence that the plaintiff would have been treated any differently had she been a man. To highlight this, the court mentioned the evidence showed that both female and male organs were referred to in derogatory terms. Finally, the court paid special attention to the context in which the case arose – creative brainstorming aimed at attempting to generate material for the show.

Second, the court concluded that the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the alleged harassment “permeated” her work environment sufficiently to meet the legal “severe or pervasive” standard. The court emphasized the significance of the creative nature of the workplace environment and its purpose of generating content for the show. In addition, the court stated that when, as here, the alleged comments and conduct are not directed at the plaintiff, she must witness it and it must be more offensive and more repetitive to meet the “severe or pervasive” standard for a hostile work environment claim. Finally, the court noted that the plaintiff had not previously complained about the conduct and was forewarned that the environment was sexually explicit before accepting the job.

What this means

This case highlights the importance of training supervisors and employees on inappropriate conduct in the workplace and thoughtfully investigating any complaints of harassment. Notably, the court placed great significance on the context in which these comments arose because it was an integral part of creating the product of the employer. The ruling should not, however, be interpreted to mean that a “machine shop” context or other environment more prone to sexual or vulgar language will be specially considered in a sexual harassment case. To the contrary, the important fact was that the discussions and conduct were related to the product of the employer and not the work environment in general. However, the case does provide a strong basis for employers to challenge hostile environment claims that are based on conduct that is not directed at the plaintiff, as under this decision, such a plaintiff must meet a high standard to establish the conduct is “severe and pervasive,” a key element of any hostile environment claim.

 

PAUL, PLEVIN PARTNERS RECOGNIZED AS TOP EMPLOYMENT LAWYERS

Fred Plevin and Michael Sullivan were highlighted in the April 10, 2006 edition of The Recorder and callaw.com as “Hidden Gems” in California’s employment law bar. Based on surveys of corporate counsel, The Recorder (which also publishes callaw.com) selected four employment lawyers throughout the state – one from San Francisco, one from Los Angeles, and two from San Diego – to profile as top lawyers who do not practice with the state’s mega-firms. Click here for a copy of the article.

For 2007, Paul, Plevin is the only San Diego firm to have three employment lawyers listed in "The Best Lawyers in America." Rich Paul, Fred Plevin and Michael Sullivan are among a handful of defense-side San Diego employment lawyers selected by their peers to be included in this exclusive listing.

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This E-Update was authored by Fred Plevin and Melissa Listug Klick. For more information, please contact Mr. Plevin, Ms. Listug Klick or any Paul, Plevin attorney at 619-237-5200.