This morning, the California Supreme Court held that sexually coarse and vulgar language used regularly in the writers’ room of a popular television situation comedy did not create a hostile work environment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Prods., ___ Cal.4th ___ (April 20, 2006).
Amaani Lyle, who is an African-American female, was employed as a writers’ assistant for a popular television series. During her employment, she claimed, several writers frequently used sexually coarse, vulgar and demeaning language in her presence. The writers allegedly discussed their sexual exploits (both real and fantasized), commented on the sexual nature of the female actors on the show, displayed crude drawings of female genitalia, and made gestures of a sexual nature.
Four months after she was hired, Lyle’s employment was terminated based on her poor performance. Lyle filed suit alleging race and gender discrimination as well as racial and sexual harassment. The trial judge granted the company’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal of Lyle’s discrimination claims, but reinstated the harassment claims. The California Supreme Court subsequently granted review to address whether the use of sexually coarse and vulgar language in the workplace can constitute sexual harassment and if so, whether such liability would violate federal and state constitutional rights of free speech.
The California Supreme Court’s decision focused heavily on the fact that although she was present during the coarse and vulgar sexual discussions, the comments were not directed toward her and that the vast majority of the comments were not about her or any of her co-workers. The court further held that Lyle failed to establish that the alleged conduct was engaged in because of her sex. With regard to the comments about the female cast members, the court found that those comments were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or offensive work environment. As a result, the Supreme Court returned the case to the lower court with directions to affirm the summary judgment order in favor of the company.
In light of this holding, the court did not reach the free speech arguments raised by the company. However, in a separate concurring opinion, one justice stated that he believes that the First Amendment does place substantial limitations upon sexual harassment law as it applies to workplace speech.
The Lyle decision represents a major victory for California employers. The Supreme Court parsed through a variety of alleged conduct and held that when analyzed properly it did not rise to the level of actionable sexual harassment. Employers should be mindful, however, of the unique nature of the workplace involved in this case. The Supreme Court noted several times that the creative nature of the work environment must be considered when evaluating the alleged conduct. Employers should not view this decision as a green light to allow their workplaces to go unmonitored or unregulated.
Should you have any questions about this ruling and its ramifications, contact the Ogletree Deakins attorney with whom you normally work or the Client Services Department at 800-603-1252 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This article was published in the April 20, 2006 issue of the California eAuthority.