Misclassification/Exemptions

By Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Labor has scrapped its 2010 Fact Sheet on internship status and adopted the more flexible and employer-friendly test devised by Second Circuit.

In a decision that surprised no one who has followed the litigation of wage hour claims by interns, the US Department of Labor has abandoned its ill-fated six-part test for intern status in for-profit companies and replaced it with a more nuanced set of factors first articulated by the Second Circuit in 2015. The move officially eliminates agency guidance that several appellate courts had explicitly rejected as inconsistent with the FLSA.

The DOL announced the move with little fanfare. In a brief statement posted on its website on January 5, it said:

On Dec. 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the fourth federal appellate court to expressly reject the U.S. Department of Labor’s six-part test for determining whether interns and students are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The Department of Labor today clarified that going forward, the Department will conform to these appellate court rulings by using the same “primary beneficiary” test that these courts use to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law, eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community, and provide the Division’s investigators with increased flexibility to holistically analyze internships on a case-by-case basis.

The DOL rolled out the six-part test in 2010 in a Fact Sheet issued by the Wage and Hour Division. The test provided that an unpaid intern at a for-profit company would be deemed an employee under the FLSA unless all six factors—requiring in essence that the internship mirror the type of instruction received in a classroom setting and that the employer “derive[] no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern”—were met. The upshot of the test was that if the company received any economic benefit from the intern’s services, the intern was an employee and therefore entitled to minimum wage, overtime, and other protections of the FLSA.

Spurred by the DOL’s guidance, plaintiffs filed a flurry of lawsuits, especially in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. But despite some initial success, their claims were not well received. The critical blow came in 2015 from the Second Circuit, which in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Picture Searchlight emphatically rejected the DOL’s test, stating, “[W]e do not find it persuasive, and we will not defer to it.” Instead, it said, courts should examine the internship relationship as a whole and determine the “primary beneficiary.” It crafted its own list of seven non-exhaustive factors designed to answer that question. Other courts soon followed the Second Circuit’s lead, capped off by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in late December.

For the new leadership at the DOL, that was the final blow. In the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the agency not only scrapped the six-factor test entirely, but adopted the seven-factor Glatt test verbatim in a new Fact Sheet.

While the DOL’s action marks the official end of the short-lived six factors, the history books will note that the Glatt decision itself was the more significant event in the brief shelf-life of internship litigation. As we have noted previously in this space, the Glatt court not only adopted a more employer-friendly test than the DOL and the plaintiffs’ bar had advocated; it also expressed grave doubts about whether lawsuits by interns would be suitable for class or collective action treatment. The DOL’s new Fact Sheet reiterates those doubts, stating, “Courts have described the ‘primary beneficiary test’ as a flexible test, and no single factor is determinative. Accordingly, whether an intern or student is an employee under the FLSA necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case.”

That aspect of the ruling, more than its resolution of the merits, was likely the beginning of the end for internship lawsuits. In the months and years since Glatt was decided, the number of internship lawsuits has dropped precipitously.

At this point, only the college student depicted recently in The Onion  seems to be holding out hope. But as we’ve advised many times, employers should not get complacent. Unpaid interns, no matter how willing they are to work for free, are not a substitute for paid employees and should not be treated as glorified volunteer coffee-fetchers. As the new DOL factors make clear, internship experiences still must be predominantly educational in character. If not, it will be the interns (and their lawyers) giving employers a harsh lesson in wage and hour compliance.