Black Swan interns win lawsuit, Condé Nast gets sued next

You might remember that back in 2011, a pair of former interns who worked on Black Swan sued Fox Searchlight for back pay because they worked for free and the internship didn’t really teach them anything. It’s a tough case, because on the one hand, companies using interns as a de facto slave labor force isn’t a great system. But on the other, signing up to work for free and then turning around to sue for back pay isn’t what I’d call fair either.

In a ruling that is likely to be scrutinized throughout Hollywood — and maybe corporate America at large — a federal judge on Tuesday handed a couple of the interns suing Fox Searchlight a victory on summary judgment and also certified a class action over the internship programs of Fox Entertainment Group.

Ah, yes, the old class action suit. The kind of case that makes lawyers rich, bankrupts companies, and the actual victims make a couple bucks each. Just the way the law was intended, I’m sure.

The lawsuit was first brought in late 2011 by two interns — Alex Footman and Eric Glatt — who both worked on Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan and claimed that the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

The lawsuit then got bigger, with amended claims brought by added named plainitffs such as Kanene Gratts, who worked on Searchlight’s 500 Days of Summer as well as Eden Antalik, who participated in the FEG internship program. To prevail, they would need to jump several hurdles, including showing that the training programs set up weren’t for the advantage of the trainees.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge William Pauley issued a ruling that is very favorable to the suing interns.

The judge also looked at whether the internship program qualified as a bona fide training program under the Labor Department’s six criteria for determining whether an internship might be unpaid. These factors include whether the internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment, whether it is for the benefit of the intern, whether the intern displaces regular employees, whether the employer derives immediate advantage, whether the intern isn’t necessarily entitled to a job after the conclusion of the internship, and the understanding about no entitlement to wages.

The federal judge in New York has certified a class action that will explore internships throughout the corporate departments at Fox Entertainment Group. Unlike a fellow judge who recently refused to certify a class action for some 3,000 fashion magazine interns working at Hearst, this judge sees commonality and the other factors that are required to move forward with such a class action.

Specifically, the judge rules “Antalik has identified several common questions relevant to determining NYLL violations, including: (1) whether Defendants derived an immediate advantage from interns’ work, (2) whether interns displaced regular employees, and (3) whether FEG’s internship program was for the benefit of interns.”

The judge adds, “Here, the relatively small recoveries available to individual plaintiffs make a class action a more efficient mechanism.” [THR]

The rules for internships going forward seem fair, and should’ve been there all along, if a little hard to interpret and enforce. The class action aspect of it sucks, because all it’s going to do is funnel money from companies into lawyers’ pockets while the former interns get a negligible amount of back pay. And oh would you look at that, now Condé Nast is facing a class action suit. But it’s okay, I hear the publishing industry is raking it in hand over fist these days.

Two former interns filed a lawsuit against Condé Nast on Thursday, saying the company failed to pay them minimum wage at their summer jobs at W Magazine and The New Yorker, and asked that it be approved as a class-action suit.

Lauren Ballinger, who worked as an intern at W Magazine in 2009, and Matthew Leib, an intern at The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, said in the suit that Condé Nast, which owns the magazines, paid them less than $1 an hour.

According to court papers filed Thursday morning in Federal District Court in Manhattan, Mr. Leib was paid $300 to $500 for each summer he worked. During that time, he was asked to review pieces for submission to the “Shouts and Murmurs” section and proofread and edit articles for the “Talk of the Town” section. Mr. Leib, a cartoonist, also helped maintain the online cartoon database, did research in the cartoon archives and coordinated the work of cartoon artists, the suit claims. He worked three days a week from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.

A Condé Nast spokeswoman said the company did not comment on litigation. [NYTimes]

Unpaid internships suck, but again, that is what you signed up for, isn’t it? Why can’t we change the rules going forward without charging people for what was basically a legal agreement at the time it was made? Lawyers, man. They should all quit suing each and go write about basketball movies instead like Danger Guerrero. The world would be a better place if it had more Danger Guerreros. I’d probably have to blow my brains out to keep from hearing about Space Jam again, but it’d be a better place.