A Coveted Internship, but Its Holder Sues Anyway

The New York Times Steven Greenhouse
August 1, 2014

Kimberly Behzadi felt lucky to land an internship as a college senior with ICM Partners, the talent and literary agency.

But she grew upset that she wasn’t paid during her five-month internship. So she has sued ICM, asserting that it violated minimum wage laws by not paying her even though she did work similar to that done by the agency’s paid assistants.

Filed in federal court in Manhattan, her lawsuit is the latest in a wave of lawsuits that interns have brought, including ones against Hearst Magazines, Fox Searchlight, Gawker, Condé Nast and Warner Music.

In an unusual twist for an intern’s lawsuit, ICM has asked the judge to dismiss the case and send it to mandatory arbitration. That’s because Ms. Behzadi was actually hired by the company after her internship and signed standard papers agreeing to settle any disputes with the company through arbitration.

ICM said in its legal filings that it runs an educational internship program that satisfies the government’s criteria for when one doesn’t have to pay interns.

Ms. Behzadi said that as an intern she worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. four days a week and read and summarized scripts, answered phones, did expense accounts for agents and maintained the weekly calendar of comedy events to help the agency scout up-and-coming comedians.

She asserted that ICM violated United States Labor Department rules that allow companies not to pay interns if they satisfy certain criteria. Those include that the employer not receive any immediate advantage from the intern’s work, that the intern’s work not displace regular employees and that the training be similar to that given in an educational environment.

The interns at ICM were doing the hands-on work of the company on a day-to-day basis, ” said Ms. Behzadi’s lawyer, Rachel Bien. The work they did was of immediate advantage to the company. They were doing the same work as the paid assistants there. ”

Ms. Bien said the lawsuit is seeking class-action status for more than 200 people who interned at ICM.

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Ms. Bien argued that the case should not be forced into arbitration, saying that arbitration is usually secret and enables companies’ misdeeds to be swept under the rug. She argued that the arbitration agreement signed in November 2012 should not cover Ms. Behzadi’s work as an unpaid intern months before.

It is an overreach, Ms. Bien said, to try to reach back and extend the arbitration agreement which was to cover claims arising when she was a regular employee to cover her time as an unpaid intern. ”

I would have loved to have been paid, ” said Ms. Behzadi, 24, who will enroll this September in the M.B.A. program at the University of Buffalo. Unpaid internships are almost an acceptable thing in the industry there were 100 other people who wanted my internship. If I voiced grievances about not getting paid, I would have been bumped out and that would leave me nowhere, with little chance of finding work in the industry. ”

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I want to raise awareness on what goes on in unpaid internships, ” said Ms. Behzadi. What we’re doing is comparable to what paid employees are doing. “