Internship Problems? Make Sure That a Lawsuit Isn’t One…

One of the more interesting issues I’ve been following for the past couple years is the proliferation of lawsuits filed by current and former interns against their employers, many of whom are media companies. I discussed some of the early lawsuits and the issues involved in a post on my firm’s blog back in in 2013.

Though we don’t offer legal advice through our blog, I did warn that “the overall nature of internships is being scrutinized, and the conventional wisdom – that, by giving an intern academic credit, an employer can avoid paying him or her – is out the window”. I also gave some general thoughts on how employers could modify their internship programs to avoid being sued:

  • Make sure that all internship programs are training-focused, with education-based components.

  • Incorporate ongoing oversight of interns’ day to day activities and a few education based sessions per week beyond their work.

  • Have interns shadow older staff rather than just serving as an extra (unpaid) staff member.

About 16 months later, I think it’s entirely appropriate reiterate the need to review your internship programs in light of some recent developments.

First, the lawsuits continue. Yes, they are mainly still being filed in New York but they are still almost exclusively being filed against media companies of all stripes.

Second, they continue to be successful. As I note in a more recent blog post from September, former intern plaintiffs suing Gawker were given conditional “class certification”, which really ups the ante in litigation. As I note, class certification suddenly means you’re fighting against several plaintiff at once, making you, not them, the little guy. It also means there could be more of “them” to fight – it opens the door to new litigants who might have been unaware of the lawsuit or unable to participate on their own. And just this week, Conde Nast settled a lawsuit filed by former interns, agreeing to pay $ 5.8 million in restitution. Granted, most AAN members wouldn’t be on the hook for that amount, but here’s how it breaks down in terms you might understand: Conde Nast will be paying about $700 to $1,900 to each intern. Still doesn’t seem like much? Remember, that doesn’t include the legal fees Conde Nast paid to its lawyers just to get to that point.

So as you’re probably hearing from students seeking summer internships, you might want to take some time to not only review credentials, but your own as well. The days of the unpaid intern may be fading.