California Supreme Court Rules in Employer’s Favor Regarding the Sexually Charged Workplace Involved in Writing for the TV Show Friends

Volume 5, Issue 4
April 26, 2006

On April 20, 2006, the California Supreme Court issued a reasonable, employer-friendly decision in an interesting sexual harassment case regarding the writers for the hit television show Friends. Most importantly, the Court conservatively applied sexual harassment law and provided helpful precedent for employers in several important areas.

The Plaintiff was employed for four months as a writers' assistant for Friends. She alleged that she was subjected to sexual harassment from the writers who drew lewd pictures, made vulgar gestures, and regularly discussed their sexual preferences and practices as well as their desires regarding female cast members. The Court found that the Plaintiff was not subjected to sexual harassment under California state law, which is similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Court focused on Plaintiff's admission that neither she nor any other female employee was the subject of the majority of the writers' comments, or any of the pictures or gestures. The Court held that while the use of vulgar and sexually disparaging language is certainly relevant, it is not enough, by itself, to prove sexual harassment which must constitute discrimination because of sex. The Court explained that the issue in sexual harassment cases is whether members of one sex were exposed to disadvantageous terms and conditions of employment because of their gender. The Court held that the Plaintiff failed to prove discrimination because the majority of the writers' conduct was not directed at any particular woman and the conduct took place in creative groups of men and women who both shared sexual stories in an effort to generate scripts for a show featuring sexual themes.

With regard to the writers' comments about female cast members, however, the Court found that such comments could be viewed as discriminatory because they were derogatorily directed at particular women and were offensive to the Plaintiff. Nevertheless, the Plaintiff failed to prove that this subset of conduct was severe or pervasive enough to rise to the level of actionable harassment.

In addition to reassuring us that reasonable results can be received in a California court, the ruling serves as an important reminder that the legal analysis associated with sexual harassment cases differs significantly from the necessarily broad prohibitions of an employer's policy against harassment in the workplace. While employers properly prohibit all forms of sexual conduct, including sexual comments, we can take comfort in knowing that Title VII and similar state laws are not civility codes and that courts should impose legal liability only when conduct is truly discriminatory. Here, the conduct was not generally directed at Plaintiff or other employees and took place in a sexually charged environment specifically designed for creating sexual material. Had the writers directed their conduct toward Plaintiff to make her uncomfortable or targeted female employees with their gestures and comments, the result would very likely have been different.

Read the Complete Supreme Court Decision

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