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Justices Skeptical of `Friends' Suit

Supreme Court notes that a fired assistant claiming sexual harassment had been warned about raunchy writers' meetings.

February 15, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court appeared dubious Tuesday that a former writers' assistant for the television show "Friends" suffered sexual harassment because of raunchy, sexual comments the show's writers made while producing scripts.

During a hearing in Sacramento, two of the state high court's justices observed that Amaani Lyle, 32, was warned before she was hired for "Friends" that she would be subjected to sexually explicit talk in the writers' room.

Warner Bros. Television Productions Inc. fired Lyle in 1999 after four months on the job, concluding that she typed too slowly to take adequate notes of the writers' brainstorming. Lyle sued, claiming she had been subjected to a hostile work environment that amounted to sexual harassment.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard appeared to find it significant that Warner Bros. had told Lyle to expect "a lot of sexual talk, very frank talk and at times vulgar" language. "She said, 'No problem,' " Kennard related.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George also noted that Lyle had been warned of "sexual banter" before she was hired.

But Scott O. Cummings, who represented Lyle, said she was never cautioned that one of the writers would be "drawing a woman's vagina and making jokes about it."

Cummings argued that three of the show's male writers engaged in sexual talk for "their own personal satisfaction, their own personal kicks."

In her lawsuit, Lyle charged that writers Gregory Malins, Adam Chase and Andrew Reich discussed their personal sexual experiences, ruminated on the kinds of breasts and buttocks they preferred and mused about the sexual proclivities of three of the show's actors: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette and David Schwimmer.

Lawyers for Warner Bros. countered that the writers engaged in sexual talk because they were writing for a show about sex among young adults. The graphic conversations were part of the creative process, Warner Bros. contended.

Sexual talk "was one of the tools of the trade of being a writer on a show that dealt with sexual themes," Adam Levin, who represented Warner Bros., told the court.

Only one of the court's justices challenged that argument. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar suggested the writers might have gone too far.

Even though Lyle was warned her work would involve talk about "sexual themes and low-brow humor," Werdegar said, "I am not sure that low-brow humor would have prepared her ... for what she was exposed to."

Werdegar observed that Lyle maintained the writers' conversation often "had nothing to do at all with writing 'Friends' " and asked whether a jury would have to determine what pertained to the show and what was said and done for the writers' "personal gratification."

Warner Bros.' Levin said it didn't matter whether all the writers' comments related specifically to the show or made their way into a script. Writing involves "going down blind alleys," exploring subjects that may go nowhere and making false starts, the Warner Bros. lawyer said.

"Many ideas end up on the cutting room floor, but the writers can't be punished for ideas that were never used," Levin said.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed Lyle's suit, but a three-member panel of the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles overturned that decision. The appeals court ruled the suit could go to trial and a jury could decide whether the sexual vulgarities were "necessary" to the writing process.

The California Supreme Court took the case on appeal and will decide Lyle vs. Warner Bros.(S125171) within 90 days. The news media, including The Times, have sided with Warner Bros. in the case.

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