A potentially game changing case is making its way towards a conclusion in California and it could have a serious impact on how internship programs across the country are managed.
The case was launched back in September of 2011 by two inters with Fox Searchlight, a film studio that was working on producing the Oscar nominated hit Black Swan. The interns sued, claiming that the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The suit picked up even more steam when, late last year, the plaintiffs attempted to expand the case into a possible class action against the entire Fox Entertainment internship program. Experts speculate that the group is seeking at least $5 million in damages.
Last week the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment as well as a motion for class certification, pushing to have this case act as a test case. Fox filed its own summary judgment motion seeking to have the case tossed.
The plaintiffs’ argument boils down to the idea that the interns work for the production company displaced paid employees and that the internship program then in place was not actually a training program according to the terms laid out by the Labor Department.
One issue that complicates the case is the unusual structure created when studios begin producing a new picture. Rather than having Fox directly responsible for hiring and firing employees, a new corporation is created that has little if any assets and is assigned to manage the task. That new corporation exists only for the duration of the production and once the film is finished, the corporate entity is completely disbanded. Fox has argued that the company created to handle production of Black Swan was the real employer and, as such, Fox should be excused. The plaintiffs claim that the company was a mere figment only intended to avoid liability on the part of Fox. The plaintiffs’ complaint points out all the ways that Fox still controlled the details of the film and acted as a puppet master, pulling all the strings of the company created to manage the film production.
One of the interns at the center of the case is said to have frequently done work that others were being paid to do and that the internship program was in fact an excuse to not pay young workers who were willing to do grunt work as needed. They said that had the intern not done the work, then other paid employees would have had to do it. Both interns reported working five days a week from 9 in the morning to 7 at night, all without pay.
Oral arguments in the case have been set for May and many companies, not just those in Hollywood, will be watching to see the outcome. If the court certifies the class action or issues a summary judgment, sweeping changes to internship/trainee programs across the country could be in store.
Source: “Hollywood Interns: Fox Lawsuit Likely to Break Ground,” by Eriq Gardner, published at HollywoodReporter.com.
Source: “Fox Intern Lawsuit Could Mean ‘Swan’ Song For Unpaid Labor In Glamour Industries,” by Christopher Zara, published at IBTimes.com.