CASE IN POINT: The Friends Case

You may associate the hit TV sitcom Friends with the catchy “I’ll be There for You” theme song, comedic one-liners, and the never-ending relationship saga of Rachel and Ross.  This TV show also made its way into the sexual harassment law arena in 2006 through the California Supreme Court case of Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Productions (“Lyle” or “Friends”).

In the Friends case, a female writer’s assistant filed suit against male comedy writers for sexual harassment.  The case revolved around whether the writers’ conduct, which included sexual antics, graphic sexual discussions, and lewd gestures such as pantomiming of masturbation, constituted a work environment which was hostile and abusive on the basis of sex. 

In order for there to be a hostile work environment, sexual harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive from the perspective of a reasonable person with the same fundamental characteristics of the plaintiff. 

The California Supreme Court in the Friends case found that the writers’ sexual behavior was not sufficiently severe or pervasive because the sexual conduct was not directed at the plaintiff or other women in the workplace and because the Friends production was a creative workplace focused on writing scripts for a sexually-themed comedy show.   The California Supreme Court said, “Because the derogatory comments did not involve plaintiff, she was obligated to set forth specific facts from which a reasonable trier of fact could find the conduct ‘permeated’ her direct workplace environment and was ‘pervasive and destructive.’”

In determining whether conduct permeated the purported victim’s work environment and was pervasive and destructive, the trier of fact should consider all the surrounding circumstances of the case.  In the Friends case, the California Supreme Court found that the writers’ conduct did not constitute unlawful harassment and was “neither surprising nor unreasonable from a creative standpoint.”  The Court said, “Common sense, and an appropriate sensibility to social context, will enable courts and juries to distinguish between simple teasing or roughhousing… and conduct which a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would find severely hostile or abusive.”

In other words, whether sexual conduct will permeate a victim’s workplace and be pervasive and destructive will depend on what type of job the victim holds.  For example, if the explicit sexual behavior of the writers in Friends, such as telling graphic sexual stories and pantomiming of masturbation, took place instead at an accounting firm’s daily meetings over an extended course of time, it may very well be pervasive and destructive.  On the other hand, if a female bartender is working at a strip club, and is exposed daily to graphic sexual conduct, the social context would indicate that the behavior is not pervasive and destructive and does not create a hostile work environment.

Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Prods. (2006) 38 Cal. 4th 264.



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