In a decision that Hollywood has been waiting for months to hear, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals today threw the Black Swan intern case on its head by vacating an earlier judgment in favor of two interns who worked on the Darren Aronofsky-directed film. The hearing on the appeal of District Judge William Paley III’s ruling of 2-years ago was held on January 30 this year. The original 2011 lawsuit against Fox Searchlight set the stage for a slew of intern class actions and settlements against media companies based on claims that the interns were doing what should be classified as paid work. Unlike other studios and companies that have gone for multi-million dollar settlements in their interns cases, Fox has fought hard to get the status defined in their favor – and today a 3-judge panel moved things distinctly in that direction.
“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,” said the Judge John Walker Jr. written opinion from the Appeals court Thursday (read it here). Judge Walker and his colleagues took issue with the Department of Labor’s 6-factor criteria to determine if an intern is an intern or an employee. Judge Paley heavily drew on the DOL standards in his 2013 ruling in the Black Swan case. “On defendants’ interlocutory appeal, we VACATE the district court’s order granting partial summary judgment to Glatt and Footman, VACATE its order certifying Antalik’s New York class, VACATE its order conditionally certifying Antalik’s nationwide collective, and REMAND for further proceedings.” Which means back to the district courts for all concerned and more lawyers as this case has to reset.
“We are very pleased with the Court’s ruling, but the real winners are students,” said a Fox spokesperson Thursday. “Fox has always been very proud of its internship programs and continues to believe they offer tremendous benefits to those who participate in them.”
Fox Searchlight won the right to appeal former Black Swan interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt’s case in November 2013, after a game-changing ruling in June of that year that the unpaid interns on the 201o Oscar winning film were really employees under the definitions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law.
Footman and Glatt’s class action was on behalf of themselves and more than 100 Fox Searchlight interns. They sought back pay from the Fox specialty label for work they believe they should have been paid for. The studio eventually fired back that the two were never actually Fox Searchlight interns, arguing that the duo actually worked for Aronofsky’s production company. In August 2012, the plaintiffs attempted to expand the scope of their suit to include all interns who participated in Fox Entertainment Group’s internship program.
Still, the eventual ruling in favor of the pair paved the way for other Hollywood heavyweights like NBCUniversal, ICM Partners, Viacom and Lionsgate to be hit with similar suits. Anxiety over where the Black Swan case could go was one reason why a number of those actions have recently resulted in settlements. Trying to get its legal house in order, Hollywood has also seen studios and agencies turn their Intern programs into paid positions – moves that mean there are far fewer intern spot available for those looking to break into the industry.
Footman and Glatt have primarily been represented by Rachel Bein and Adam T. Klein of NYC firm Outten & Golden LLP, which has handled a number of intern cases over the past few years. Fox Entertainment has had a team of attorneys from several firms handling the matter for them – and they must be letting off some celebratory pre-4th of July fireworks this morning.