Hearst Blocking Efforts To Build Class, Unpaid Interns Say

Law 360 Bill Donahue, Editing by Katherine Rautenberg
February 27, 2013

A former unpaid intern who claims Hearst Corp.’s intern policies violated federal labor law accused the magazine publisher on Tuesday of dragging its feet in turning over contact information for possible class members and actively impeding the notice process.

Xuedan Wang won conditional certification last year on her claim that Hearst ran afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay magazine interns for entry-level work, entitling her to begin notifying other interns potential opt-in plaintiffs of her lawsuit, filed in New York federal court.

But on Tuesday, Wang’s attorneys said Hearst had turned over only a fraction of the contact information it was ordered by the court to divulge, making available full information for only 328 of the estimated 3,000 potential class members.

“By failing to make a good-faith effort to search for and produce contact information for potential collective members, defendant prevented these individuals from receiving timely notice of their rights in this case, undermining the FLSA’s remedial purpose in the process,” the motion said.

The company maintained that it didn’t keep a list of former interns, but Wang’s attorneys said the publisher seemingly had no problem finding unlisted former employees for another reason: to secure declarations against Wang’s charges.

“Although defendant was able to find these individuals in order to obtain declarations from them, 19 of them were not on the class list at all,” the motion said. “It will not be unduly burdensome for defendant to collect additional collective member contact information indeed, when defendant needed to reach potential collective members to obtain declarations to support its defense, it apparently had little trouble locating them.”

The plaintiffs want the court to extend the notification period and order Hearst to be more helpful during the process, including reaching out to intern supervisors at its magazines and departments and asking for all contact information that they may have.

On top of the alleged lack of effort, Wang also took exception to how Hearst’s interns reportedly interacted with the former interns that it reached for declarations. The plaintiff says the defense attorneys mislead the former interns about her case, did not inform them that they could join it and even intimated that they represented the former interns’ interests rather than Hearst’s.

“The court should also authorize corrective notice to those collective members from whom defendant obtained declarations, claimed to represent and failed to provide adequate disclosures, informing them that they are still eligible to participate in the case,” the motion said. “Courts routinely take similar measures to protect class members’ rights following inappropriate communications from defendants.”

An attorney for Hearst didn’t immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday.

Wang first sued in February, claiming she worked full time at Hearst magazine Harper’s Bazaar for five months sometimes as much as 55 hours a week for no pay, even though she did jobs that should have been handled by actual employees.

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Under federal law, interns can work without pay, but only if their work is for an educational purpose and does not provide the employer with a substantial benefit, according to the complaint.

Judge Harold Baer Jr. granted the interns class certification in July, ruling that they had met the fairly lenient early-stage standards for collective status under the FLSA. Several state law claims, however, have been trimmed from the case since it was lodged.

Wang is represented by Adam T. Klein, Rachel M. Bien and Elizabeth H. Wagoner of Outten & Golden LLP.

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The case is Wang v. The Hearst Corp., case number 1:12-cv-00793, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.