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Court Rules Unpaid Interns May Not Sue For Sexual Harassment Under NYC Civil Rights Statutes


Court Rules Unpaid Interns May Not Sue For Sexual Harassment Under NYC Civil Rights Statutes

October 15, 2013

The topic of unpaid interns has generated a lot of buzz in the employment law world after a flurry of recent lawsuits in which interns sought repayment under the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Our Professional Liability Matters blog discussed the issue in posts on June 25 and July 9.) However, an October 3 decision from the Southern District of New York has taken the topic into a new direction: sexual harassment. The result? The court ruled that unpaid interns cannot sue for sexual harassment under New York City municipal civil rights laws.

In Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143627, an unpaid intern asserted a claim against the defendant alleging a hostile work environment pursuant to the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y. City Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. (NYCHRL). The Southern District of New York noted that it was already clear that both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law (N.Y. Exec. L. § 290 et seq.) prohibited such claims by unpaid interns. However, it was an issue of first impression as to whether such a claim could be maintained under the NYCHRL.

The inquiry focused on whether the plaintiff could be considered an “employee” of the defendant as required by the city’s municipal civil rights laws. The plaintiff argued that in light of the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, N.Y.C. Local Law No. 85 (2005), NYCHRL claims must be analyzed separately from federal and state discrimination claims, and that the federal courts must construe the NYCHRL’s provisions broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs to the extent that such a construction is reasonably possible. The plaintiff argued that the proper analysis is one that considers the other indicia of an employment relationship under the preexisting test for NYCHRL claims — hire, power of dismissal, and supervision and control of tasks performed — and balances those factors along with whether the plaintiff was compensated.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument, noting that although the Restoration Act required an independent liberal construction, the act also provided that interpretations of New York state or federal statutes with similar wording may be used to aid in interpretation of the NYCHRL, so long as courts do not treat similarly worded provisions of those statutes as a ceiling above which the NYCHRL cannot rise. Even after passage of the Restoration Act, the New York Court of Appeals has stated that it generally interpreted state and local civil rights statutes consistently with federal precedent where the statutes are substantively and textually similar to their federal counterparts, and that it has always strived to resolve federal and state employment discrimination claims consistently.

Relying on prior federal and state case law which held that Title VII and the NYSHRL did not apply to unpaid interns, the court ruled that the same held true under the NYCHRL, dismissing the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

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