Over the last few years, we have written about misclassification issues arising out of the use of unpaid interns to perform work. A recent case from a New York State court has just made it more difficult for such interns to assert class action claims for unpaid wages. In Rodriquez v. 5W Public Relations, (N.Y.S. Supreme Ct., N.Y. Cty, Index No. 156571/14, July 26, 2016), a putative class of individuals sought to recover unpaid wages from 5W Public Relations, LLC and its CEO for work they performed as unpaid interns. In seeking class certification, the plaintiffs were required to show, among other things, that common questions of law or fact predominated over any questions affecting only individual plaintiffs. Such a showing would be necessary to permit the plaintiffs to sue as a class, instead of individually.
The plaintiffs argued that common questions of law and fact predominated because all of the putative class members were required to agree to a universal employment agreement; performed similar work; were all subject to the identical employee handbook policies; and were all uniformly misclassified as interns not entitled to minimum wage. The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification despite that the interns appeared to all be subject to the same policies and work, because, according to the court, “the question of whether defendants’ internship program created employment relationships [could] only be answered with individualized proof as opposed to generalized proof.” In other words, although the interns were all part of the same internship program and subject to the same policies, their individual circumstances would need to be considered on the ultimate issue of whether or not they were really employees. The court did not state the precise test it would ultimately apply in determining whether the interns were really employees, but stated that any such test would balance a number of factors that took into account both the benefit of the work to the employer and the individual intern’s experiences.
The court provided the following non-exclusive list of factors that would be relevant in determining whether an intern was really an employee entitled to wages:
- Whether the intern received college credit for his or her work;
- Whether the intern had an expectation of compensation;
- The skills learned by the intern during the internship; and
- The extent to which those skills pertained to the intern’s academic and career goals.
According to the court, such a balancing of factors would require individualized proof from each individual and not generalized proof, rendering it impractical for the case to advance as a class action.
The denial of class certification in this case means that each intern would have to pursue his or her own claims on an individual basis — a situation that might not be practical when measuring the costs of litigation against the potential amount recoverable by an individual intern.