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PBS' Charlie Rose settles with unpaid interns as lawsuits spread

Protesters rally before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone
Protesters rally before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

By Amanda Becker

(Reuters) - PBS talk show host Charlie Rose and his production company will pay roughly $110,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by former unpaid interns, under an agreement approved by a New York state judge.

The victory, another win on the wages front for interns, comes amid a wave of lawsuits that followed a June 11 ruling by a federal judge in Manhattan that former production interns for the 2010 film "Black Swan" were de facto employees of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In the so-called glamour industries of film, publishing and other media, unpaid internships are standard. The cost-saving practice has spread to other businesses, prompting experts to predict that litigation in more traditional fields could be next.

In the Charlie Rose case, former intern Lucy Bickerton filed a class-action lawsuit in March 2012 alleging that she and other interns of the Charlie Rose Show worked without pay for an average of six hours a day for several of days a week over the course of a semester.

The settlement, approved on Friday, grants each eligible intern who submits a claim form $110 for each week worked up to a maximum of 10 weeks, the average length of an academic semester internship.

Vedder Price attorney Lyle Zuckerman, who represented Charlie Rose, estimated his client would end up paying about $60,000 to former interns and another $50,000 to their attorneys.

In another settlement, fashion designer Norma Kamali agreed this week to settlement terms with a former intern.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks by former interns against Atlantic Records, W Magazine, the website Gawker, Fox Soccer Channel and a production company that produces programming for Nickelodeon, among other employers.

"It's very important for the general unpaid internship lawsuit movement," attorney Maurice Pianko said of the Kamali settlement.

Pianko said he could not discuss the terms of the preliminary settlement between Kamali and his client, Erica van Rabenswaay, but he credited the designer for resolving it fairly and quickly.

Pianko founded the group Intern Justice as a vehicle to represent unpaid interns challenging wage violations. He is also handling a lawsuit brought by a former intern against Atlantic Records and Warner Music Group.

In that case, Justin Henry has sued Warner in a New York state court on behalf of company interns from June 2007 to the present. The lawsuit alleges that for more than six months, Henry worked at least seven hours a day, five days a week answering phones, faxing paperwork, filing and picking up lunch for Warner Music employees.

The tasks he was performing meant he was an employee under state law that should be paid minimum wage and overtime, the complaint states.

The Gawker lawsuit was brought by former interns against the website and its founder, Nick Denton, in federal court. They said they "were not paid a single cent" to work at least 15 hours a week performing tasks such as writing posts, editing contributors and moderating online comment sections. The complaint also said that Gawker did not provide the interns with academic or vocational training.

To determine whether interns are interns or employees, both state and federal courts try to decipher whether the primary beneficiary of the internship was the intern or the employer.

The Black Swan case judge cited a 2010 fact sheet published by the U.S. Department of Labor on a six-prong test to determine whether an intern at a for-profit company must be paid. The test was based on a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court case related to railroad workers that established an exception for trainees.

"Menial as it was, their work was essential. The fact they were beginners is irrelevant," U.S. District Judge William Pauley in New York wrote in determining the Fox Searchlight interns should be paid.

Charlie Rose attorney Zuckerman said that other judges, including those in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, may not apply the test in the same manner as Pauley.

Zuckerman said he and his client "firmly believe" that they met the test for proving it was an educational program that mainly benefited the interns, but, given the size of the settlement, protracted litigation didn't make sense.

"You've got to have a big enough company to fight the fight," Zuckerman said.

A preliminary settlement of the Charlie Rose lawsuit was announced in December 2012.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Steve Orlofsky)

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