Unpaid Interns Deemed Employees Under the FLSA

By: Kate S. Gold and Elena S. Min

A federal district court in New York ruled last week that unpaid interns who worked on the production of films for Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group, Inc. were actually employees who should have been paid in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and New York Labor Law (“NYLL”)Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., Case No. 11-CV-06784 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).  This decision comes just weeks after another Southern District of New York judge issued a favorable defense ruling by denying class certification for unpaid interns at various Hearst-owned magazines.  See Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, Case No. 12-CV-00793 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

In Glatt, the court applied the six-factor test set used by the Department of Labor (“DOL”)  and determined that two unpaid interns who worked on production of Black Swan were improperly classified  and did not come within the “trainee” exception to the FLSA’s coverage.  Instead, the interns should have been classified as employees subject to the FLSA and NYLL.  Specifically, in applying the DOL test, the court found that:

  1.  The internship was not similar to training in an educational environment because the interns did not receive any formal training or education, or acquire any new skills aside from those specific to the Black Swan back office during the internship;
  2. The internship had only incidental benefit to the interns – resume value and references– which were not the result of the structure of the internship, and that Fox also benefitted from the unpaid work;
  3. The interns displaced regular employees and performed tasks that would have otherwise been performed by regular employees, such as obtaining documents for personnel files, picking up paychecks for coworkers, tracking and reconciling purchase orders, making copies, and running errands, among other low-level tasks;
  4. Fox received immediate advantages from the activities of the interns, and there is no evidence that the interns impeded work;
  5. The interns were not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The parties understood that the interns were not entitled to wages for time spent in the internship, although the court noted that this factor was not determinative.

While the plaintiffs to whom the court’s ruling applied did not seek class certification, the court granted another plaintiff’s motion for class certification of her NYLL claims and conditional certification of the FLSA claims.  In doing so, the court found that:  (1) the class was sufficiently numerous because it included at least 40 plaintiffs whose information was not easily identifiable by plaintiffs; (2) there are common questions or law and fact relating to the DOL’s six-factor test; (3) the plaintiff’s claims are typical of the class because she participated in the same internship program administered by the same set of recruiters as all class members and was classified as an unpaid intern like all class members; (4) plaintiff’s interest are not antagonistic to those of the class; (5) common issues of liability predominate over any individual damages claims; and (6) class action is a more efficient mechanism than individual claims because of the relatively small recoveries available.

The court’s reference to the evidence presented in the case provides a good lesson for employers.  The court noted an internal memo in which Fox stated that, in light of the DOL test, Fox would only provide paid internships unless a manager could comply with the six criteria provided by the DOL.  The outcome in Glatt demonstrates employers must remain vigilant not only in maintaining proper policies on internships, but also in training and oversight of managers, to ensure compliance with the DOL’s six-factor test and the FLSA.

Unpaid Internships – Training Programs or a Lesson in Class Actions?

By: Kate S. Gold and Elena S. Min

Summer is quickly approaching, and eager students are lining up for internship opportunities, some of which may be unpaid.  The whole topic has caused a firestorm of news stories lately – including an NYU students’ petition to remove unpaid internship postings from the campus career center, and an auction by an on-line charity website for a six week unpaid internship at the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights (the current bid is $26,000).  Do unpaid internships run afoul of federal and state minimum wage laws?  The answer potentially is yes, but given recent successful challenges to class certification, employers now have useful guidance in developing defense strategies against such claims.

Last week, in Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 12-CV-00793, the court denied class certification in a case brought by interns at various Hearst-owned magazines.  The interns challenged Hearst’s practice of classifying them as unpaid interns, allegedly to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and New York state law.  The court found that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the commonality requirement for class certification.  While plaintiffs could demonstrate a corporate-wide policy of classifying proposed class members as unpaid interns, the nature of the internships varied greatly from magazine to magazine.  The court noted there was no evidence of a uniform policy among the magazines regarding the interns’ specific duties, training, or supervision.

Days later, attorneys for the defendant in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 11-CV-06784, made a similar argument to defeat class certification in a case in which Fox interns challenged their unpaid status under federal and New York state minimum wage and overtime laws.  In that case, the interns worked on the sets of different films or were based out of corporate offices, and weren’t governed by a centralized policy or procedure.  The defendant in Glatt argued that class certification should be denied because of the lack of a uniform policy.  While the court in Glatt has not yet ruled, these two cases suggest that, although claims by unpaid interns may persist, plaintiffs may find it increasingly difficult to sustain them as class actions.

In light of these cases, now is a good time to review the rules for internships.  According to the Department of Labor, internships in the for-profit private sector will be viewed as employment relationships for which the FLSA minimum wage and overtime rules will apply, unless the intern is truly receiving training which meets six criteria:  (1) the internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment; (2) the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; (3) the intern is not replacing employees and works under close supervision; (4) the sponsor of the intern does not derive immediate benefit from intern’s activities and at times, its operations may actually be impeded; (5) the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and (6) the sponsor and the intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.  As of 2010, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) relaxed the multi-factor test it previously applied and now uses the same criteria as the DOL.

While the Hearst ruling is good news for employers, the case did not address the merits of the interns’ claims and does not mean employers can relax their compliance efforts.  If an employer improperly classifies an internship as “unpaid,” the employer could be liable for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, penalties for failure to provide meal and rest breaks, as well as potential liability for violations of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws that apply to employees.  The bottom line is that employers should apply the DOL/DLSE six-factor test and if their internships do not meet the criteria, the interns should be paid at least minimum wage.

Editors note: Be sure to check out Kate’s guest blog post for thewrap.com on the use of interns by entertainment and media companies.

California Court of Appeal Finds Employment Arbitration Agreement Barring Class Claims Unconscionable

By: Fey Epling

In Compton v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B236669 (2d Dist. Mar. 19, 2013), a divided panel of the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the Los Angeles Superior Court’s order compelling arbitration of her wage-and-hour class action complaint.

The Compton majority found the arbitration provision was substantively unconscionable because it was “unfairly one-sided” for four reasons.  First, the agreement exempted the employer from arbitration for injunctive relief on claims related to confidential information and trade secrets.  The majority did not find the carve-out of plaintiff’s claims for workers compensation, unemployment and disability claims sufficient to create parity.  Second, the majority found the imposition of a one-year time limit to arbitrate employee claims impermissibly shortened the applicable statutes of limitations; for a separate, but related reason, the court found this limitation was unfairly one-sided when compared with the three- and four-year statutes of limitation applicable to the unfair competition and trade secret claims preserved by the employer.  Finally, the majority found that the attorneys’ fees language undermined the employee-favorable statutory fee provisions.  Of some concern, the court declined to sever the offensive terms, finding the agreement to be “permeated by unconscionability.”

In an apparent effort to distance its opinion from AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1740 and its progeny, the Compton majority emphasized that the Concepcion opinion arose out of a consumer arbitration agreement.  The court specifically found that Concepcion “did not abrogate the Armendariz one-sidedness rule,” i.e., “the doctrine of unconscionability limits the extent to which a stronger party may, through a contract of adhesion, impose the arbitration forum on the weaker party without accepting that forum for itself.”  Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Servs. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, 118.

The Compton court found that the agreement was also procedurally unconscionable because, regardless of “how conspicuous the arbitration agreement’s terms and advisements,” the employer’s reported conduct (hurried presentation and signature requested) “rendered them nearly meaningless” and demonstrated oppression.  The court also found that the information provided was one-sided because it did not sufficiently set forth the rights that were being waived, and because the rules of the applicable arbitration bodies were not provided to the employees in toto.

As a procedural side note, the panel was divided even on the basis for consideration of the appeal.  The dissent found that the appeal was appropriate pursuant to the “death knell” doctrine, and the majority side-stepped the issue by addressing the issue as a petition for writ of mandate.

The dissent raises a host of issues and highlights the unsettled conflicts between the Concepcion line of cases and California’s unconscionability principles, which have arisen primarily in the context of employee and consumer lawsuits.

Given the strong language in Compton and the court’s refusal to strike out the offensive terms, California employers may wish to engage in a review of their arbitration agreements in light of the Compton majority’s opinion.

Editor’s Update:

On June 12, 2013, the Supreme Court granted defendant’s petition for review, but deferred all briefing and further action in the matter pending its disposition of Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., S199119, the leading case on the related issue of whether the Federal Arbitration Act, as interpreted in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 563 U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1740, preempt state laws invalidating mandatory arbitration provisions in a consumer contract on grounds of procedural and substantive unconscionability.

Would Your Wage and Hour Practices Withstand Scrutiny?

By: Laurie A. Holmes

These are real headlines from the last four days:

  • Holiday Inn at LA Airport Hit with Wage Class Action
  • Bath & Body Works Will Pay $1.3M to End Managers’ Wage Suit
  • Texas Sales Managers Hit Gold’s Gym with Overtime Suit
  • FedEx to Pay $10M to Settle OT, Meal Break Suit
  • Kraft Paying $1.75M to Settle Sales Workers’ OT Suits
  • ZipRealty Pays $5M to Settle California Agents’ Wage Claims

Similar headlines from the last two weeks would fill this screen.  And these headlines do not reflect a new trend – rather, they are just examples of the many similar headlines featured almost daily in Labor and Employment publications.  In fact, a record number of wage and hour lawsuits have been filed in the last 18 months.  And there’s no sign that they will be dwindling any time soon.

Why are these suits here to stay?  For one, with the availability of attorneys’ fees and liquidated damages, they’re a boon for plaintiffs and their lawyers.  For another, given economy-driven layoffs, potential plaintiffs may end up in lawyers’ offices more often, looking for ways to strike back.  And don’t think you’re protected just because the former employee signed a severance agreement.  Employees cannot release wage and hour claims, even if your agreement says otherwise.  Perhaps most compellingly, the Fair Labor Standards Act is not the easiest law to comply with.  Ever try to compute the regular rate when non-discretionary bonuses are paid every week and the amount varies?  Do you really know what “independent discretion and judgment” is?  Do you know if you need to count the time employees spend at home checking their email as “time worked”?

What are the most popular practices targeted by plaintiffs?

  • Failure to pay overtime – either because the employer doesn’t like paying overtime or because employees are misclassified as exempt.
  • Failure to pay overtime at the proper rate.
  • Paying workers less than the minimum wage, especially tipped workers.
  • Failure to provide uninterrupted meal breaks of the appropriate length.
  • Retaliation against workers who complain.

What should you do?  Short of making everyone non-exempt and prohibiting overtime, ask yourself how confident you are that your classifications are correct.  If you’re not confident, call your lawyer and schedule an audit.  Review a sampling of time and pay records to ensure that overtime was properly calculated and paid.  Not sure?  Call your lawyer.  Don’t have time records?  Groan.

Finally, don’t think you’re safe because your company is not big enough to be on anyone’s radar screen.  Ever heard of 888 Consulting Group?  Savvy Car Wash?  Geosite Inc.?  Quicksilver Express Courier Inc.?  ZipRealty?  Me either.  But all of these companies have been hit with wage and hour suits.  You may not be able to avoid being sued, but an FLSA audit before that happens could help you minimize the damages.