New Obstacles for California Employers after “Black Swan” Internship Case

July 20, 2015 - California internships in the past have been viewed as a trade-off between well know, desirable employers and young students interested in the industry. The employers get workers and the interested students get experience in their chosen field. Many college students and recent graduates vie for a limited number of highly coveted internship positions in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Companies offer unpaid positions (internships) and students and new grads vie for the chance to start building a relevant network. The simultaneously beneficial nature of the internship means there has been a limited amount of litigation related to the arrangements. But as of 2013, there’s a ruling that is affecting the symbiotic relationship between employers and interns.

In 2013, a federal District Court in New York found that interns of the movie Black Swan were entitled to pursue a class action. The class action seeks millions of dollars for unpaid wages, overtime, etc. Studios and tech business employers are taking note.

With Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit attempted to answer the basic question, what is an intern? There are interns across the county, but there is a surprisingly limited amount of actual law related to this particular workplace relationship. The Second Circuit’s decision actually turned on a case from almost 70 years ago regarding railroad apprentices. California employers are discovering that the direction this particular discussion is taking holds both good news and bad news for the future of their workplaces.

The Good News: According to the Second Circuit’s decision, wage-hour cases in relation to interns are rarely subject to resolution in a class action or collection action due to the highly individualized nature of the setup.

The Bad News: Fox, the studio that produced the movie, convinced the court to impose a test to determine who the primary beneficiary of the intern/employer relationship is. This test was to be used to determine whether the worker was an intern or an employee. The court put together 7 non-exhaustive questions for a trial court to consider when attempting determining if a worker is an intern or an employee.

  1. Is there a clear understanding that there is no expectation of compensation for work performed?
  2. Does the internship offer any hands on training or clinical experience as would be provided by a school?
  3. Is the internship a part of the coursework of the “intern”/will they receive academic credit?
  4. Does the internship coincide with the academic calendar?
  5. Is the internship limited to the time period during which the setup would provide beneficial learning opportunities?
  6. Does the intern’s work compliment or replace the work of paid employees?
  7. Is there a clear understanding that the intern is not entitled to a paid job once the internship is completed?

The primary beneficiary test is bad news for employers who offer internships with limited educational benefits for interns or for those whose interns are performing work that would be completed by employees in their absence. The opinion of the court indicated that the more menial the work assigned to an intern, the less likely that they would legally be considered an intern. Employers, particularly those in tech and entertainment industries, are finding that they need to rework their model in order to suit this new finding. It’s the first significant appellate opinion on this issue, but it will not be the last. There are other intern related cases on appeal and awaiting decision by other courts throughout the nation. In California, the opinion will probably have a fairly lasting impact. California employers are already hustling to bring their internship programs up to snuff. Interns considered employees might very well begin seeking to recover unpaid wages, overtime, etc. in accordance with the penalties of violating the California Labor Code.

If you are unsure what constitutes a valid internship or if you need additional information regarding being misclassified as an intern instead of an employee, contact the southern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.