What Lyle v. Warner Bros Taught Us About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in California

By Negin Iraninejadian

Offensive and raunchy sexual comments made in the workplace may not necessarily give rise to a claim of sexual harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  So said the California Supreme Court in its 2006 decision Lyle v. Warner Bros.

The Lyle decision involved a female plaintiff who worked for four months as a comedy writers’ assistant on the popular sitcom Friends.  Prior to being hired, plaintiff had been warned that the show dealt with sexual matters, and that her employment would often put her in a position where she would be exposed to conversations involving sexual discussions and jokes.  Plaintiff was terminated because of problems with her typing and transcribing.  Following her termination, Plaintiff brought a cause of action under FEHA against three of the male comedy writers, alleging that the writers’ use of sexually vulgar language and conduct, throughout the course of Plaintiff’s employment, constituted sexual harassment based on sex under the FEHA.  Among the vulgar actions at issue, were the writers’ discussions about their own personal sexual experiences and preferences, sexual comments about actresses on the show, and lewd gestures and drawings.  The writers contended that there actions were a necessary part of the creative process, especially given the fact that the show dealt with the issue of sex among young adults.

The California Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff in this case had not sufficiently demonstrated that the use of sexual language by the writers in this case was severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile or abusive work environment in violation of the FEHA.  The Court in reaching its decision, did not state that use of such offensive language and conduct in the workplace would never amount to the creation of a hostile work environment so as to support a cause of action for sexual harassment because of sex.  Rather, the Court engaged in a fact specific analysis of the totality of the circumstances involved in the plaintiff’s specific case.  In particular, the Court noted that the conduct at issue was not aimed directly at the plaintiff.  While the court noted that such conduct must not necessarily be directly aimed at the plaintiff, the absence of direct harassment means the plaintiff must make a greater showing to prove sexual harassment.  In the case at hand, not only did the plaintiff fail to show any action aimed directly at her, she also failed to show that an environment was created where women and men were treated differently.  The Court emphasized the fact that the context of the sexual talk was particularly relevant in this case.  The Court particularly took notice of the fact that the writers were engaged in a profession in which such vulgar talk was a necessary part of the creative process given the nature of the sitcom.  The Court concluded that considering all these different factors and the particular context in this case, the plaintiff had not shown that the conduct at issue constituted harassment directed at the plaintiff because of her sex within the meaning of the FEHA. 

The Lyle case shows that context may have a profound impact on cases involving sexual harassment law in California under the FEHA.  The decision seems to indicate that certain conduct which may be enough to constitute sexual harassment in one case may not always constitute sexual harassment in a different context.  Rather, a variety of different factors such as the nature of the workplace at issue, the severity of the conduct, and the aim of the conduct, must all be taken into consideration.  While the case may not necessarily have a widespread impact outside of the creative workplace context, sexual harassment claimants should certainly take into account all the unique factors involved in their particular case in determining whether or not an actionable cause of action for sexual harassment may exist. 

Carlin and Buchsbaum are employee rights lawyers in Long Beach, California. Our sexual harassment lawyers specialize in employment law and discrimination in the workplace. Please contact your Carlin & Buchsbaum Long Beach sexual harassment attorney with any questions.

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