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‘Black Swan’ Intern Legal Victory Reversed by Court of Appeals

Two unpaid interns on Fox Searchlight film sued in 2011 for violation of labor laws

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday vacated much of the 2013 legal ruling won by two unpaid interns who sued Fox in 2011 for violation of labor statutes.

The ruling also struck a blow to the cause of younger, less experienced interns and their attempts to file class-action suits over unpaid trainee programs.

Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, both of whom worked as unpaid interns on the Fox Searchlight film “Black Swan,” sued in 2011 for what they felt were violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. A third intern, Eden Antalik, joined the case and attempted to make a class action.

Two years later, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Footman and Glatt acted in the capacity of employees covered by New York Labor Law and the Fair Labor Standards Act rather than unpaid interns, and partially granted their motion for summary judgment.

But in Thursday’s appellate opinion, authored by Walker for a three-judge panel, the court ruled that Pauley relied too much on the Labor Department’s criteria for unpaid internships.

The court also noted that Antalik, a Duquesne University student when she interned at Searchlight’s New York publicity office, was required to have an internship to graduate. On that basis, the court shut down any attempt to build a class action from her plight.

“In sum, we agree with the defendants that the proper question is whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship,” Walker wrote, setting a higher burden of proof for the plaintiffs to prevail in their suit.

Since Footman and Glatt were not students during their time as interns — Glatt was a mid-career MBA graduate when he accepted an accounting internship on “Black Swan” in hopes of breaking into the film industry — their cases are likely to proceed.

But Thursday’s ruling offered a new, more restrictive set of guidelines for the parties to consider in determining the “primary beneficiary” of the employment when the cases return to the lower court.

The court’s full ruling can be read here.