California Supreme Court Clarifies Plaintiff's Burden of Proof in Sexual Harassment Claims
In a decision widely welcomed by employers, the California Supreme Court recently clarified what an employee alleging sexual harassment under California law must establish to support her claim. In reaching its finding, the court relied upon the premise that the creative nature of a workplace necessarily impacts the strength of a sexual harassment claim. In Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, a writing assistant on the Friends television show complained that sexually graphic and vulgar language used by male and female writers created a hostile work environment. The California Supreme Court rejected her claim and upheld the lower court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer.
In rejecting Lyle's claim, the California Supreme Court reiterated that the same standards that govern Title VII sexual harassment claims also cover claims under California law. Under both statutes, a plaintiff must show both that the harassing conduct was "because of sex" and that it was severe or pervasive. The court found that despite Lyle's graphic allegations, the only language that could have qualified as severe or pervasive had not been directed at Lyle (or women). She thus failed to meet the "because of sex" requirement. As the court stated, the "mere discussion of sex or use of vulgar language" that is not directed at a particular employee or toward one gender in particular is not "because of sex."
In all, while the court's emphasis on the "because of sex" requirement is heartening, the Lyle case should not be over-read. The conduct alleged was particularly graphic, but Lyle's workplace where writers developed a sexually-charged television show was truly unique. This same conduct would likely be deemed impermissible harassment in other workplaces. As a result, no employer, regardless of its industry, should take the Lyle decision as a license to allow a sexually charged working environment.
The true impact of the Lyle decision will be seen in future cases. We will continue to keep you apprised of developments in this area.
Schiff Hardin LLP