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Court: Unpaid internships allowed

New test will make it harder for interns to sue

Brad Williams //September 29, 2015//

Court: Unpaid internships allowed

New test will make it harder for interns to sue

Brad Williams //September 29, 2015//

A federal circuit court has adopted a new test permitting employers to use unpaid interns where the “tangible and intangible benefits provided to the intern are greater than the intern’s contribution to the employer’s operation.”  In Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected a stringent and outdated six-part test promoted by the Department of Labor (DOL) for determining whether “interns” are actually “employees” within the meaning of federal wage and hour law.  Glatt will have a significant impact on intern-initiated litigation, including by making class or collective actions more difficult to prosecute in jurisdictions that adopt the test. 

Background to Glatt 

Internships have become a hot-button topic in recent years.  In 2010, the DOL issued “Fact Sheet #71” to educate private sector, for-profit employers about unpaid interns and to dissuade their use.  Derived from a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed the use of “trainees” hoping to become railroad brakemen, the Fact Sheet listed six criteria that the DOL believed must be satisfied for interns to be excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime requirements. 

Most notably, these criteria included requirements that employers derive “no immediate advantage” from interns’ activities and that interns not “displace” regular employees (e.g., by preventing their hiring, or by absorbing overtime hours).  The DOL took the position that all six criteria must be satisfied for the “trainee” / “intern” exception to apply.  However, because most employers receive at least some benefit from unpaid interns, the DOL’s rule would effectively preclude all private sector, for-profit businesses from using unpaid interns, except in unusual cases involving bona fide educational programs and job shadowing. 

Based largely on the DOL’s position, interns initiated a wave of class and collective actions across the country alleging that they had been wrongly classified as “interns” rather than “employees.”  Despite ambiguity in the controlling case law, employers settled many of these lawsuits at great expense and out of fear that satisfying the DOL’s six-factor test would prove impossible.  For instance, Condé Nast settled a class action involving 7,500 interns for $5.8 million in 2014, and Saturday Night Live settled a similar lawsuit involving thousands of interns for $6.4 million that same year.  Other employers elected to discontinue their internship programs altogether to avoid the threat of litigation. 

Case Law Response to DOL’s Six-Factor Test 

Despite employers’ capitulation in the face of class and collective action threats, the actual test for distinguishing between “interns” and “employees” under the FLSA has always been ambiguous.  Although the DOL has long promoted its six-part test, it has vacillated in opinion letters and other administrative guidance regarding whether all six criteria must be satisfied.  For their part, courts have afforded the DOL’s test some deference, but have rarely held that all six criteria must be met.  Instead, they have considered the “totality of the circumstances” or the “economic realities” of interns’ and employers’ relationships in determining whether interns (or similar workers) are actually “employees.” 

District Court Decisions in Glatt and Hearst 

The Glatt case was originally filed in 2011 in New York by former interns of Fox Searchlight Pictures who had worked on the film Black Swan.  A similar lawsuit was filed in 2012 in New York by former interns of Hearst Corp. who had worked on magazines including Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire.  Both cases were high-profile and amongst the first wave of intern-initiated lawsuits to work their way through the courts.  Both were closely watched by employers concerned about the legality of internships. 

In 2013, the district court in Glatt held that two of plaintiffs were “employees” rather than “interns”/ “trainees” under the FLSA and state law.  The court applied a version of the DOL’s six-factor test but did not expressly hold that all six factors must be satisfied.  The court also granted class and conditional collective action certifications to a third plaintiff. 

Also in 2013, the district court in Hearst held that the magazine interns were not “employees” under the FLSA and state law based on a “totality of the circumstances” test.  The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.  Because Glatt and Hearst addressed the same issues, but reached different results, they were eventually consolidated for argument on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Second Circuit’s Adoption of “Primary Beneficiary” Test in Glatt 

On July 2, 2015, the Second Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in Glatt.  That same day, it issued a summary order in the companion case, Hearst.  In Glatt, the court rejected both the DOL’s six-factor test, and the plaintiffs’ insistence that they were automatically “employees” of Fox Searchlight Pictures because the company had received an “immediate advantage” from their work.  The court found the DOL’s six-factor test unpersuasive, and afforded it virtually no deference because it was based upon the DOL’s reading of Walling, which the Second Circuit concluded it was equally competent to construe (along with other U.S. Supreme Court cases). 

Accepting Fox Searchlight Pictures’ argument, the Second Circuit adopted a “primary beneficiary” test, holding that “the proper question is whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship.”  Although not fully articulated in the court’s decision, this test is supported by both a defensible reading of Walling, and later U.S. Supreme Court cases mandating consideration of the “totality of the circumstances” and the “economic realities” of the parties’ relationships.  To help lower courts apply the new test, the Second Circuit listed seven non-exclusive factors to consider in determining whether an intern or an employer is the “primary beneficiary” of an internship: 

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit. 
  • The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar. 
  • The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning. 
  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  • 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. 

Because the district court in Glatt had not expressly considered these factors, the Second Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.  Given its holding in Glatt, the Second Circuit also vacated the district court’s decision in Hearst and remanded for further proceedings. 

Glatts Impact in the Second Circuit and Beyond 

Glatt’s “primary beneficiary” test is more favorable to employers than the DOL’s six-factor test.  The fact that employers receive some benefit from interns’ work no longer means that internships are automatically illegal.  In addition, the individualized assessment required to determine whether an intern – as opposed to an employer – benefits more from an internship under the test means that class and collective actions might now prove impossible to certify.  In fact, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s class and conditional collective action certifications in Glatt, and affirmed the district court’s denial of class certification in Hearst.  This strongly suggests that class and collective actions may no longer be appropriate vehicles for resolving intern classification disputes in jurisdictions that apply the new test. 

The Tenth Circuit may eventually adopt a more favorable standard if and when it revisits intern classification.  Regardless of how the case law develops, however, Glatt plainly illustrates the weakness in the DOL’s six-factor test, and shows that employers may profitably resist intern class or collective actions, even when it requires making new law.