Friday, April 21, 2006
S.C. Rejects Harassment Claim by ‘Friends’ Assistant, Cites Needs of Television’s Creative Process
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A woman who accepted a job working with writers on a television program with sexual themes cannot sue over vulgar language employed in meetings as part of the creative process, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
Reversing a contrary decision by this district’s Court of Appeal, the court said Aamani Lyle lacks valid sexual harassment claims against Warner Brothers Television Productions and Adam Chase, Gregory Malins, and Andrew Reich. The justices also said that insofar as Lyle’s claims of racial harassment were intertwined with those based on gender, the Court of Appeal must reconsider its ruling allowing her to sue on that basis.
Warner Brothers Television—along with Bright, Kauffman, Crane Productions, which was dismissed from the suit on the ground it was never the plaintiff’s employer—produced the tremendously successful NBC series “Friends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004 and still draws strong ratings in reruns.
Chase and Malins were executive producers and writers on the show, and Reich was a writer.
In addition to claiming harassment, Lyle alleged that she was terminated due to her race and gender and that she was retaliated against because she complained that the lack of black characters on the show constituted discrimination against black actors. The non-harassment claims were rejected by both the trial and appellate courts.
Lyle, an African American, worked for the show for four months, as a writer’s assistant. Her duties consisted primarily of taking notes in script meetings, and the producers say she was fired because she could not type fast enough and that dialogue developed during meetings was often missing as a result.
She claims she was constantly subjected to offensive and bigoted comments and jokes made by the writers and producers during meetings. She was offended, she said, by the constant references to the defendants’ own sexual experiences, the making of sexually explicit drawings in an erotic “coloring book” one of the defendants kept on his desk, speculation about the sex lives of the actors on the show, relation of sexual fantasies, repeated use of the “F word” and a Yiddish word for penis, disparaging remarks about women’s breasts, and simulated masturbation, among other things.
The defendants argued that racially and sexually oriented comments or jokes were not severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment and that such remarks were, in any event, an essential part of creating a program about sexually active young adults.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David A. Horowitz, who has since retired, granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants. He also found that the plaintiff’s claims were frivolous and awarded the defendants more than $400,000 in attorney fees under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Yesterday’s ruling returns the case to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration of all issues, including the attorney fee award.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, said Lyle has no case for sexual harassment because she cannot show that the complained-of language was directed at her or at other women in the workplace and because “considering the totality of the circumstances, especially the nature of the writers’ work, the facts largely forming the basis of plaintiff’s sexual harassment action...did not present a triable issue whether the writers engaged in harassment ‘because of . . . sex.’”
Baxter acknowledged that the use of language similar to that employed in the “Friends” writers room has been held to create a hostile work environment in other contexts. But those cases, the justice said, involved situations in which the environment that was created was one in which men and women were treated unequally or in which men engaged in such conduct in order to make women feel insulted or uncomfortable.
Lyle’s deposition testimony, the justice said, suggested that “she viewed the writers and their conduct as puerile and annoying, rather than extreme or destructive.” While Lyle did assert that she was offended by the writers’ use of profane references to describe certain women, Baxter added, she acknowledged that she never heard them refer to her by those terms.
Because the defendants did not violate the FEHA, Baxter went on to say, it was unnecessary to determine whether their conduct was constitutionally protected. But Justice Ming Chin, while joining the unanimous opinion, also wrote a separate concurrence expressing support for the constitutional argument.
The case was argued in the high court by Scott O. Cummings of Century City for the plaintiff; Jeffrey K. Winikow, also of Century City, for the California Employment Lawyers Association as amicus in support of the plaintiff, and Adam Levin of the West Los Angeles firm of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp for the defendants.
The case drew a number of amicus briefs on both sides.
The California Women’s Law Center and a number of law professors at major universities, including Harvard’s Charles Ogletree, who represented Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, supported the plaintiff.; while the defendants had the backing of groups representing actors, directors, screenwriters, journalists, employers, and the book and newspaper publishing industries, as well as conservative and libertarian groups.
The case is Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, 06 S.O.S. 1999.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company