Question : Amaani Lyle was a comedy writers’ assistant

Amaani Lyle was a comedy writers’ assistant who worked on the production of the television show Friends. The show revolved around a group of young, sexually active adults, featured adult-oriented sexual humor, and typically relied on sexual language and gestures to convey its humor. Before Lyle was hired, she had been warned in the interview that the show dealt with sexual matters and that as an assistant to the writers, she would be listening to and transcribing their sexual jokes and discussions about sex likely to be used for scripts. Lyle responded that sexual discussions would not make her uncomfortable. She was hired as a writers’ assistant.
Four months later, Lyle was fired because of problems with her typing and her transcription. Lyle sued claiming the writers’ use of sexually coarse and vulgar language and conduct was sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment. Warner Brothers filed a motion for summary judgment claiming the behavior of the writers was not severe or pervasive. The trial court granted Warner Brother’s motion and Lyle appealed.
Issue: Did the writers’ use of coarse and vulgar language constitute a hostile work environment?
Holding: No, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was affirmed. According to the court, Lyle testified that she had no recollection of any employee of the Friends production ever saying anything sexually offensive about her directly, nor anyone asking her out on a date or sexually propositioning her. No one ever demanded sexual favors from Lyle or physically threatened her.
However, there were a number of offensive discussions and actions that occurred in the writers’ meetings that Lyle was required to attend. For example, the writers regularly discussed their preferences in women and sex in general. One writer spoke of his preference for blondes, a certain bra cup size and “getting right to sex” and “not messing around with too much foreplay.” Another writer discussed his love of young girls and cheerleaders, spoke of oral sex experiences, and told the group that when he and his wife would fight, he would “get naked” and then they would never finish the fight. A writer kept a notebook with graphic drawings that was sometimes left open on his desk or the writers’ assistants’ desks. The writers also spoke openly in a demeaning manner about one of the actresses on the show, making jokes about whether she was competent in sexually servicing her boyfriend.
According to the court, in order to bring a successful hostile work environment claim, Lyle must show that the conduct complained of was severe or pervasive to alter her work conditions and create a hostile environment because of her sex. Thus, it is the difference in treatment based on Lyle’s sex, not the mere discussion of sex or use of vulgar language that is the essence of her claim. A hostile work environment claim is not established where a supervisor or coworker simply uses crude or inappropriate language in front of an employee or draws a vulgar picture without directing sexual innuendos or gender-related language at the employee or women in general. In addition, the court must look carefully at the social context in which this behavior occurred.
Based on this, according to the court, the context of the show being a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-themed show with sexual themes is significant in assessing the existence of a hostile work environment. Both male and female writers discussed their sexual experiences to generate material for the show. The record shows that the sexual antics did not involve or were not aimed at Lyle or any other female employee. Moreover, there was no indication that the vulgar discussions affected Lyle’s work hours or duties. While the conduct was certainly sexual in nature, a court could not find that had Lyle been a man she would not have been treated in the same manner.

a. There was some graphic conversation at the writers’ table. How could the court not find it created a hostile work environment?
b. Do you think it is meaningful that the writers warned Lyle in her interview that there would be lowbrow humor?