Monday, 17 June 2013 09:09

The Black Swan Case - Did The Judge Get It Right?

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fox searchlightThis past week, the long-awaited decision of the “Black Swan” Case was passed down.  Judge William H. Pauley III, a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by not paying production interns.

I have been watching and reading about this case unfold for over a year now.  And from the beginning, I have held to the belief that the self-proclaimed ‘interns’ were really not interns at all. 

They were employees. 

That’s how the judge ruled it – and I think he got it right.

So why all the press?  Why all the hub-bub?

Because the plaintiffs and the defendants referred to this as an internship when in fact, it was not. 

Take a look at the following definitions for internships:

From Intern Bridge - “Internships are structured, supervised, and short-term programs in which undergraduate or graduate students perform tasks and duties within an organization in order to gain knowledge and experience. The internship is usually performed over the course of one semester, or during a summer or winter break. The student may or may not earn monetary compensation from the company and/or academic credit from the university. Internship programs should benefit both the student and the organization.”

From The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) – “An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.”  

Ask yourself… were they interns? 

Were they enrolled in an academic program? 

Was there a faculty member guiding the learning process?

Was this a short term engagement?

Were there learning objectives connected to the duties and tasks performed?

Was the employer using this to guide and evaluate talent?

The answer to each of the questions above is no.

Did the judge rule this right?  He sure did.  Fox Searchlight was deliberately taking advantage of their “employees” by providing them work with no pay.  Fox Searchlight should have known better.  When someone works for your company or organization, you should pay them at least minimum wage.  That is the fair and just course of action.  Fox Searchlight made a choice to not pay these individuals and they were held accountable for their actions.

I found it interesting that when the news coverage of the ruling came out last week that not one mention was given to the school that these two gentlemen were enrolled, nor was there any mention of the academic degree they were pursuing.  You may be asking yourself why.  I certainly did. Well the answer is simple - the media has a responsibility to sell papers (or visits to their website) NOT to report the essential facts of the story.

The media knew that this was barely a reportable story if they did not include the words “Unpaid Internship”.  Without those two simple words, no one would read about this case.  In their reporting, the media left out an essential fact.  The so-called ‘interns’ were not students at all.  In fact, they were seasoned employees who wanted to transition into the industry and choose this as their path.  One gentleman is in his early 40’s the other in his mid to late 30’s.  They were adults with several years of professional working experience who WANTED to transition their careers.  They were not students but rather willing volunteers, ergo, they were not interns.

Who was FORCING these two gentlemen to go to “work” every day and engage in these activities for no pay?  Could they not have just quit whenever they wanted to?  Could they have just walked away?  Of course they could.  THEY CHOSE to be a part of this volunteer engagement.  

Call me a purist, call me old-fashion, but I believe that words still have meanings and need to have meanings in our vernacular.  Unfortunately, the word “INTERNSHIP” does not have a standardized definition. For example, if you were to randomly stop 100 people on the street and asked them to define this word, you would have 100 different answers.  Therein lies the problem - the definition of the word “Internship”.

In this case, since the employer and the “so-called” interns referred to this engagement as an “internship”.  Since they did so then it was an internship, right?

Ok… let’s follow that logic.

If I say I am the King of England does that make it true? 

I fear that although that this case was ruled correctly, that there may be some long-term ramifications for us in higher education as we seek to develop more activities and programs to effectively transition our students from college to the world-of-work.  Will employers back-off of offering real internships for fear of legal action being brought against them?  Only time will tell – Is the unpaid internship dead and a thing of the past?  Click here to learn more!

What do you think?

Read 7389 times Last modified on Thursday, 20 June 2013 16:48
Dr. Robert Shindell

Dr. Robert Shindell is the Vice President & Chief Learning Officer for Intern Bridge.  You can reach him via email at

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