Class Action Certification Denied to Magazine Interns

Following in the footsteps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, Judge Harold Baer, Jr. recently denied class certification to a group of unpaid interns attempting to sue the Hearst Corporation for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The lawsuit, Xuedan Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, was filed in the Southern District of New York earlier this year. Each of the named plaintiffs worked as an unpaid intern for one of the Hearst Corporation’s magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan.* The magazines required that the interns perform many of the same tasks that paid employees performed.* Nevertheless, Hearst concluded that it did not have to pay the interns for this work because they were in college and eligible to receive academic credit.*

Xuedan Wang and the other plaintiffs in the case recently filed a motion for class certification, which would have allowed them to bring their claims as a group in a single lawsuit. They described the class as consisting of “all persons who have worked as unpaid interns at Hearst Magazines in New York between February 1, 2006 and the date of final judgment in this matter.”*

In order to certify a class, a group of plaintiffs must show that “(1) the class is sufficiently numerous; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the class representative has claims and defenses that are typical of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.”* Additionally, plaintiffs must also demonstrate that “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior” to litigation by the plaintiffs as individuals.*

In denying the motion, Judge Baer reasoned that the last of these requirements had not been met.* The judge noted that in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the plaintiff failed to put forth evidence that Wal-Mart had a general policy of discrimination across all of its stores. Similarly, Judge Baer held that the unpaid interns had not provided evidence that they had all performed the same duties and obtained the same benefits during each of their internships.*  The question of job duties and benefits was central to the issue of liability in the case. Because several of the interns performed different duties and obtained different benefits, it did not matter that, on a broader level, all of them had been classified as unpaid interns.

This case is just one more example of the reach of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dukes. The plaintiffs in this case will now have to bring their cases individually. While not impossible, doing so makes the claims much less attractive both to the plaintiffs and their lawyers. Litigating each lawsuit individually will be more costly and time-consuming, and less lucrative with regard to damages.

* Opinion & Order (May 8, 2013), Xuedan Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 12cv793. http://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/cases/show.php?db=special&id=291

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