United States: Interns Flunk The Class

Last Updated: December 12 2017
Article by Robert S. Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit has upheld summary judgment against magazine interns seeking payment as "employees" under the FLSA.

In an end-of-semester decision that may represent the final grade for unpaid interns seeking minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA, the Second Circuit has firmly rejected claims by Hearst magazine interns challenging their unpaid status.

The interns served on an unpaid basis for various magazines published by Hearst Corporation, either during college or for a few months between college and graduate school. They sued, claiming they were employees because they provided work of value to Hearst and received little professional benefit in return.

Following discovery, District Judge J. Paul Oetken rejected the interns' claim of employee status and granted summary judgment to Hearst. On appeal, the Second Circuit framed the question succinctly: "whether Hearst furnishes bona fide for‐credit internships or whether it exploits student‐interns to avoid hiring and compensating entry‐level employees." If the former were true, the interns would be deemed trainees, who could permissibly be unpaid; if the latter were true, the interns would be entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

In support of their appeal, the interns argued that many of the tasks they performed were "menial and repetitive," that they received "little formal training," and that they "mastered their tasks within a couple weeks, but did the same work for the duration of the internship." These points, they contended, outweighed their receipt of college credit and other indicia of an academic flavor to their experience.

The appeals court, in Wang v. Hearst Corp., appeared to have little trouble upholding the grant of summary judgment in favor of Hearst. Applying its test for assessing whether interns are employees or trainees, the court held that the factual record favored non-employee status on six of the seven pertinent factors, enough to sustain the judgment in the company's favor.

Those seven factors, as loyal blog readers will recall from prior posts, first appeared in the court's 2016 decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, in which the court held that the "primary beneficiary" test governed whether interns were considered employees or trainees. The Glatt court rejected the Department of Labor's multi-factor test and devised its own:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa;
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands‐on training provided by educational institutions;
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the internʹs formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the internʹs academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  5. The extent to which the internshipʹs duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning;
  6. The extent to which the internʹs work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern;
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

The factors are non-exhaustive, and as the Second Circuit reiterated in the current case, need not all point in the same direction to support a conclusion of non-employee status.

The "heart of the dispute on appeal" was factor two — whether the interns received "training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment." The plaintiffs argued that, in order for this factor to weigh in favor of non-employee status, the internships would have to provide "education that resembles university pedagogy to the exclusion of tasks that apply specific skills to the professional environment."

The court was not convinced. It recognized that the Hearst internships varied in many respects from classroom learning. But as it had said earlier in Glatt, this was precisely the point. "The [plaintiffs'] tacit assumption is that professions, trades, and arts are or should be just like school; but many useful internships are designed to correct that impression.... [P]ractical skill may entail practice, and an intern gains familiarity with an industry by day to day professional experience."

Perhaps the most significant part of the ruling comes at the end, where the court discusses the propriety of summary judgment. The interns, and various amici curiae (unions, advocacy groups, and professors) who advocated on their behalf, argued strenuously that various "mixed inferences" on the seven internship factors precluded a grant of summary judgment. While acknowledging that application of the factors required some weighing of evidence, the court nonetheless said this did not mean the case required a trial.

"Status as an 'employee' for the purposes of the FLSA is a matter of law," the court said, "and under our summary judgment standard, a district court can strike a balance on the totality of the circumstances to rule for one side or the other." It continued: "Many of our FLSA tests that are fact‐sensitive and require the judge to assign weight are routinely disposed of on summary judgment [citing cases]. The amici contend that summary judgment is inapposite in all unpaid intern cases that turn on competing factors. Such a rule would foreclose weighing of undisputed facts in this commonplace fashion."

In many ways, the Wang decision may be the epilogue to a textbook that has already been written. After the Glatt decision in 2016, the number of lawsuits filed by interns seeking unpaid compensation dropped precipitously. That may have been due to Glatt's highly-employer-friendly resolution, both as to the merits of the employee-or-intern question and its pronouncements on the high threshold for collective/class certification on the question. Or perhaps it was due to the decisions by employers, reacting to the onslaught of intern lawsuits seeking pay under the FLSA and state law, to curtail or limit their internship programs or to pay interns compensation at or above minimum wage. Whatever the reason, the Wang decision cannot be heartening for plaintiffs' lawyers, and the days of widespread lawsuits by interns are likely over.

Still, companies who remain interested in sponsoring unpaid interns should not get complacent. Paying minimum wage, of course, remains a fail proof antidote to the possibility of FLSA claims by these individuals. But if that is not an option, companies should take care to ensure that their programs have primarily educational aims and coordinate wherever possible with the interns' educational institutions to ensure they meet the factors articulated by the court. Otherwise, the interns may be the ones teaching them a lesson.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Robert S. Whitman
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