May 16, 2013 -- A group of unpaid interns, suing for back pay they claim is owed them, have hit a legal wall: A New York judge has dismissed their class-action suit against Hearst Corp., saying they don't meet the definition of a class. If they want to sue, they will have to do so as individuals.
The setback comes at a time when tens of thousands of college students are seeking summer internships--many of them unpaid.
New York attorney Maurice Pianko, whose website Intern Justice, acts as an aggregator of intern lawsuits and a disseminator of legal information, says the ruling by District Judge Harold Baer Jr. will make it much harder for this particular group of unpaid interns to pursue its claim.
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"It's not good," he told ABC News. "If it can't be done by a class action, then very few will sue, and very few lawyers will take the cases."
Pianko said that while many attorneys might find class action financially attractive, because the aggregate wages would represent a lot of money, the individual cases are worth at most a few thousand dollars each to an attorney—hardly enough to pay filing costs.
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According to Judge Baer's ruling, the class action was brought by intern Xuedan Wang and a group of her fellow interns, all of who had worked unpaid for the magazine division of Hearst Corp.
Wang, starting in August 2011, worked five days a week for Harper's Bazaar, serving as a contact between editors and public relations representatives. The other plaintiffs worked for Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Redbook and other Hearst magazines.
The interns claimed they did the same work as full-time employees, and that they were entitled to the same protections under state and federal labor laws.
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Hearst argued (and Judge Baer agreed) that the applicable law here was a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that "trainees" who work for free during a program of instruction are not employees, for purposes of federal labor law.
Hearst, wrote the Judge, showed that the interns had indeed received "some" training.
Baer further found that the work done by the interns and the benefits they received varied too much for the individuals to constitute a class.
"Judge Baer reached exactly the right conclusion," said Hearst general counsel Eve Burton, in response to a request for comment from ABC News.
Ross Perlin, a critic of unpaid internships and author of the book "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy," called Baer's decision disappointing. He told ABC he agreed that the decision will make it harder for interns to find legal representation as a class. But, he said, the decision doesn't mean that interns, working for other employers and doing more uniform tasks, might not constitute a class.
Employers, says Perlin, have been chastened by the Hearst suit and by a successful lawsuit brought by former interns who worked for TV talk show host Charlie Rose.
"A lot of employers have quietly changed their policies," he tells ABC News. "Some have started paying. There definitely is a greater likelihood, now, that, if you're a student looking for a summer internship, the one you find will be a paid one that might have been unpaid a few years ago."