When it comes to legal disputes, entertainment industry employers face the same issues that confront less glamorous employers. Many disputes likely are resolved outside of the public eye. But there have been a number of employment law cases involving celebrities. Some have established precedents that apply to the rest of us.
The “Friends” Sexual Harassment Case
Amani Lyle worked as a writers’ assistant on the television show “Friends.” After about four months, the management terminated Lyle’s employment for performance reasons.
Lyle later claimed sexual harassment, i.e., she was subjected to a hostile work environment. Nobody ever said anything sexually offensive to her, asked her out on a date, propositioned her, demanded sexual favors, or physically threatened her. However, the writers engaged in several sexual discussions at meetings Lyle was required to attend. Some writers also engaged in other lewd conduct, such as drawing sexually-explicitly pictures and pantomiming masturbation.
After the Court of Appeal concluded Lyle’s claim could proceed, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In Lyle v. Warner Brothers (2006), the court concluded that Lyle could not prove the writers’ conduct was “severe enough or sufficiently pervasive to create a work environment that was hostile or abusive.” The court also considered “the fact that the Friends production was a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.” However, courts have relied on the Lyle opinion when considering evidence of a hostile work environment in other workplace settings.
The Shirley MacLaine Mitigation Case
A person who has suffered a legal injury is obligated to “mitigate” her damages by taking reasonable steps to avoid further injury. An employee who sues her former employer for unlawful termination, for example, must make a reasonable effort to obtain comparable, replacement employment.
Years ago, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation offered actress Shirley MacLaine a fee of $750,000 to play the lead in Bloomer Girl. Fox later decided not to produce Bloomer Girl, and offered MacLaine a role in another film called Big Country, Big Man. Big Country differed from Bloomer Girl in several significant ways, including its genre and filming location. MacLaine did not have the screenplay or director approval under the Big Country contract, which she had under the Bloomer Girl contract.
MacLaine declined the Big Country role and sued Fox for breach of contract. The studio argued that MacLaine unreasonably failed to mitigate damages by not taking the role in Big Country. In Parker v. Twentieth Century-Fox, the California Supreme Court held that MacLaine’s refusal to act in Big Country did not constitute a failure to mitigate. The court reasoned that it MacLaine’s “failure to accept [Fox’s] tendered substitute employment could not be applied in mitigation because the offer of the Big Country lead was of employment both different and inferior.” The Parker case remains the seminal decision on mitigation of economic damages in employment termination cases.
The “Desperate Housewives” Wrongful Termination Case
Earlier this year, the California Court of Appeal issued an opinion in Touchstone v. Superior Court. The court held Touchstone Television Productions’ decision not to renew actress Nicolette Sheridan’s contract could not form the basis of a wrongful termination in violation of public policy claim.
Sheridan was an actress on the television show, “Desperate Housewives.” Touchstone and Sheridan’s contract granted Touchstone the exclusive option to renew her contract annually. During season five of “Desperate Housewives,” Touchstone told Sheridan it was not going to renew her contract for the following season.
Sheridan claimed she was denied renewal because she complained of a physical assault on the set of “Desperate Housewives.” Sheridan filed a lawsuit against Touchstone and asserted a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. A jury deadlocked on that claim. After the trial court ordered a retrial, Touchstone appealed to the California Court of Appeal. Touchstone argued that Sheridan was not “terminated.” Rather, Touchstone simply decided against renewing her contract.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Touchstone and held that “[d]ecisional law does not allow a plaintiff to sue for wrongful termination in violation of public policy based on an employer’s refusal to renew an employment contract.”
The “Melrose Place” Privacy Case
In employment lawsuits, privacy disputes often arise during discovery. Hunter Tylo signed a contract to appear on the television show “Melrose Place.” “Melrose Place” terminated the contract after Tylo became pregnant.
Tylo filed a lawsuit against the show’s production company. She alleged pregnancy discrimination, sex discrimination, and wrongful termination, which caused her damages including emotional distress.
During Tylo’s deposition, the employer’s counsel asked several questions regarding her marriage, purportedly to discover “other stressors that might have caused, or contributed to, [her] alleged emotional injuries.” Tylo’s attorney instructed her not to answer on privacy grounds. The defendant filed a motion to compel Tylo to answer the questions. After the trial court issued an order requiring that Tylo do so, she petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ.
In Tylo v. Superior Court, the Court of Appeal held that Tylo could not be asked about her marriage. The court noted that “[w]hen the right to discovery conflicts with a privileged right, the court is required to carefully balance the right of privacy with the need for discovery.” Defense counsel did not establish that there was a sufficient “public interest” in Tylo’s marriage, or that the information requested was “directly relevant” to her claims. The Tylo case continues to be an important case regarding a plaintiff’s right to privacy when she claims emotional distress injury.
There’s no business like show business. But show business is covered by the same employment laws that apply to the hoi polloi. Movie and television studios are employers and celebrities are employees. Their employment-based disputes may garner media attention that is not afforded employment claims outside the entertainment business. Of course, the legal issues that arise in the glamorous environs of Hollywood may have repercussions for those of us not-so-glitterati.