Sometimes vulgarity is not just acceptable but necessary in the workplace, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday as it threw out a sexual harassment case by a former assistant on the “Friends” TV show.
The justices, ruling 7-0, agreed with Warner Bros. Television Productions that trash talk was part of the creative process and, therefore, the studio and its writers could not be sued for raunchy writers’ meetings.
No jury would believe the writers’ assistant was the target of harassment during profanity-laced script sessions “for an adult-oriented comic show featuring sexual themes,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote.
“Most of the sexually coarse and vulgar language at issue did not involve and was not aimed at plaintiff or other women in the workplace,” Baxter wrote.
Amaani Lyle, 32, alleged six years ago that raw sexual remarks peppering work sessions and conversations added up to harassment against women.
Lyle said she was offended by repeated references to the actors’ sex lives and to the writers’ own sexual exploits as they penned the successful NBC sitcom rife with bawdy banter about six New York City friends.
She was fired after four months on the job, allegedly because she could not transcribe meetings fast enough or capture the flavor of the meetings.
Jeffrey Winikow — an attorney for the California Employment Lawyers Association, which filed a brief in support of Lyle’s suit — said the high court should have let a jury decide whether the behavior was harassment.
“There was absolutely no evidence to link any of the conduct at issue with anything that occurred on the show,” Winikow said.
Warner Bros. acknowledged that some of the sexually explicit talk took place but said it was vital to the show’s chemistry. The justices noted that Lyle had been warned when she was hired that explicit discussions were part of developing the sexually charged comedy.
Still, the court added that the same dialogue and behavior might be illegal elsewhere.
“Language similar to that at issue here might well establish actionable harassment depending on the circumstances,” Baxter wrote.
Adam Levin, an attorney for Warner Bros. who argued the case before the justices in February, said the decision was a boon for Hollywood and other fields that thrive on creativity.
“I think employers in the motion picture industry and other industries are going to breathe a collective sigh of relief,” Levin said.
Warner Bros. Television Productions is a division of Time Warner Inc.
Los Angeles employment law attorney Anthony Onicidi speculated that a ruling in favor of the former assistant have made it virtually impossible to produce TV programs or other creative works.
“If your concern is with every statement or gesture, you could be subject to a lawsuit, that is going to inhibit the creative process,” Onicidi said.