OUTRAGEOUS! Intern Can’t Bring Sexual Harassment Suit Because She's Not an ‘Employee,' Judge Says

As if being an unpaid intern wasn’t rough enough, it gets worse….

Last week, New York federal district court judge Kevin Castle ruled that a former unpaid intern could not bring a sexual harassment suit under New York City Human Rights Law because the absence of remuneration disqualified her from “employee status” under the law, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

In order to bring a claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employee status is deemed an “essential condition to the existence of an employer-employee relationship” and to date, interns are not considered 'employees'.

In the case at hand, Lihuan Wang, a former intern at Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc. filed a suit against the company after what she described as repetitive sexual advances and physical touching by her supervisor and bureau chief. 

On one occasion, Wang claims that Liu asked her to accompany him to a hotel after a meal to help deliver work-related items.  In the hotel room, Wang alleged that her boss began to undress and advanced towards her exclaiming, “Why are you so beautiful?” while attempted to kiss her and grab her behind.

The Chinese-language media company denied engaging in sexual harassment, even though offender apparently left the company. Wang has also filed an additional pending suit in which she claims she was denied a job at Phoenix because she refused her boss' sexual advances.

Sadly this incident isn’t isolated with a number of cases in recent years highlighting the need to address the rights of interns so that they are covered under employment discrimination laws.

Moreover, this particular incident raises the question of whether unpaid internships violate federal and state minimum law wages in light of the recent 2013 Glatt v Fox Searchlight Pictures decision in which a federal district court found that unpaid interns were entitled to back pay.

David Yamada, Professor of Law explains the disparity:

“In instances where an unpaid intern should’ve been paid under the law, the employer benefits two-fold by claiming the lack of pay renders an intern unable to bring a discrimination or sexual harassment claim, no matter how bad the underlying alleged behavior. By not paying an intern in violation of the law, the employer also may escape liability for discrimination or sexual harassment. How’s that for a bad result?!” he wrote in Todays Work Place Blog.

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