New York City Amends Human Rights Law to Include Sexual Harassment Protections for Unpaid Interns

Students and others often work as unpaid interns in the hopes of furthering their educations, gaining experience, and improving their chances of getting a full-time job. Unfortunately, interns have few of the legal protections against discrimination, harassment, and other unlawful practices that apply to employees. After a federal judge dismissed a sexual harassment claim brought by an unpaid intern, the New York City Council amended the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to cover unpaid interns as well as paid employees.

The NYCHRL, along with the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employment discrimination based factors, including sex. Its protections only apply to “employees.” Under Title VII and the NYSHRL, that term has been construed to mean someone who receives compensation for their work. O’Connor v. Davis, 126 F.3d 112, 115-16 (2nd Cir. 1997). Before the case that inspired the New York City Council to act, no court had addressed whether the NYCHRL applied to unpaid interns. See McCormick v. Int’l Ctr. for the Disabled, NY Slip Op. 31063(U) (Sup. Ct. NY County 2013).

In Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, No. 1:13-cv-00218, mem. order (S.D.N.Y., Oct. 3, 2013), the court considered whether an unpaid intern could assert a claim for hostile work environment and sexual harassment under the NYCHRL. It held that the interpretation of “employee” used for Title VII and the NYSHRL should also apply to the NYCHRL, and that the plaintiff was therefore not an employee and lacked standing to sue.

The plaintiff in Wang was a journalism grad student at Syracuse University when she began an unpaid internship in December 2009. The internship was with the American subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media Group, which creates television news and other programming for Chinese-language audiences. Phoenix’s Washington DC bureau chief, who managed both the Washington and New York offices, had authority over hiring and firing employees and interns, and was the plaintiff’s supervisor.

The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that the bureau chief sexually harassed her, created a hostile working environment, and retaliated against her by rescinding the possibility of future employment. After a dinner with co-workers in January 2010, he allegedly invited the plaintiff back to his hotel room. She did not think she could say no because he was her boss. He allegedly put his arms around her, tried to kiss her, and groped her. She rebuffed his advances and left, and claims that he ceased any discussion of future employment after that. The court dismissed her hostile work environment claims on the ground that she was not covered by the NYCHRL and the NYSHRL, but it allowed the retaliation claim to proceed.

The New York City Council unanimously passed Int. No. 0173-A on March 26, 2014. The bill adds a definition of “intern” to the NYCHRL: a person who, regardless of whether they receive compensation, provide temporary work for an employer for educational purposes, while under the supervision of the employer’s staff. It also amends the NYCHRL’s employment discrimination provisions to extend the same protections enjoyed by employees to interns.

The sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent the rights of workers in New York City and surrounding areas, asserting claims for harassment and discrimination at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

EEOC Settles Sexual Harassment, Sex Discrimination Claim with Bank for $1.45 Million, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 12, 2014
Bronx Family Court Grants Protective Order in Sexual Harassment Dispute, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 5, 2014
New York Appellate Court Reverses Sexual Harassment Judgment, Finding Plaintiffs Did Not Connect Claim to Gender, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 20, 2014

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