'Black Swan' Intern Lawsuit Proceeds, Striking Blow Against Unpaid Labor In Film
Huffington Post—Joe Satran
Former "Black Swan" interns Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman won a small skirmish in their court battle with Fox Searchlight this morning when Judge William H. Pauley III allowed them to file a motion to amend their suit to expand the plaintiff class to include everyone who has worked as an unpaid intern at Fox Entertainment Group for the past several years.
Elizabeth Wagoner, an attorney with Outten and Golden, the firm representing the plaintiffs, told The Huffington Post that Pauley set the deadline for the motion at Sept. 5, and that he said he would rule on it at a hearing on Oct. 9. She said Pauley encouraged Fox's legal team not to contest the motion.
Pauley also ruled today that Fox would have to give the plaintiffs an email the company sent to all former unpaid interns, which the plaintiffs say was designed to coerce them not to join the lawsuit.
The results of today's court conference have no inherent bearing on the central legal questions in the case -- namely, whether Fox violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by refusing to pay its interns. But the rulings increase the chances of hundreds or even thousands of past interns joining the suit and demanding back pay. As such, they support the mission that Glatt, 42, says was central to his decision to sue Fox Searchlight: doing away with unpaid internships altogether.
"I want to see the practice ended," Glatt told The Huffington Post. "I think unpaid internships are extremely detrimental to the labor market, and especially pernicious in creative industries."
Glatt said that he feels a big problem with unpaid internships is that they disrupt the labor market for entry-level workers by forcing people at the beginning of their careers to work for no pay and suppressing wages for people who have been on the job for several years.
John Williams, the founder of non-profit Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, which mentors underprivileged youth to prepare them for work in the film industry, said he thinks that the practice is skewing the entire industry away from equal representation.
"If you're a poor kid, or you can't afford to work for free, and people are saying you should work for free, that's going to favor kids who can do that, whose parents can pay their bills for years. It probably has an impact on how diverse the film industry is," Williams said.
Glatt said that he felt uncomfortable with the idea of providing free labor when he first signed up to be an intern on "Black Swan." But after working in the insurance industry for years, he was trying to to get into the film business. Everyone he asked for advice told him that unpaid internships were a necessary stepping stone on the path to paid work. He felt excited enough about becoming a filmmaker that he agreed to suck it up -- for a while.
"I thought it was just one of those unjust things that I couldn't do anything about as an individual," Glatt said.
As the internship wore on, he continued to feel like Fox was taking advantage of him -- a feeling reinforced when the movie made more than $300 million in global box office receipts. He started investigating the legal status of unpaid internships and found out that the Department of Labor had issued legal guidelines about what constitutes a permissible internship -- but that few internships he'd heard of met those guidelines.
That was when he decided to sue Fox.
Glatt said he knew that by suing, he was risking being excluded from working in the film industry forever and that this had likely kept scores of other interns from suing in the past. But he said his desire to change the labor market in a real way outweighed his aspirations to work in film.
"I knew that even if I made it -- and became a journeyman, working editor, I could make a decent living. I have friends like that," he said. "But it would have taken doing years of these unpaid internships, which I knew were so unjust, and I just wouldn't have been able to sit through quietly. Especially knowing that I had a chance of making a difference. The one thing I can't stifle is my voice."
Even though he felt sure his legal reasoning was sound, he had trouble finding a law firm to take on the case. Many he talked to were hesitant to get behind such an unprecedented kind of suit. Then he found Outten and Golden.
"We definitely are interested in changing the practice and ensuring that entry level workers are paid the minimum wage and are treated fairly," Wagoner said. "That's been our bread and butter here since long before Eric approached us."
Outten and Golden was ready to file a suit almost immediately after Glatt approached them, but he had already planned a trip abroad for that same month, so he asked them to wait 10 days. In the meantime, he contacted Footman, his co-intern at "Black Swan," to see if he might be interested in joining the suit. Footman said yes, and they filed the suit in September.
Most of the procedural meetings on the case so far have, like today's, ended in rulings in favor of the plaintiff. Fox Searchlight tried to allege, for example, that the proper defendant in the suit is actually "Black Swan" director Darren Aronosfky's production company, not Fox -- but the court has not yet acknowledged that argument.
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It's unclear how long the case will last; a trial date was originally set for spring 2013, but if the motion to expand the intern class succeeds, discovery will likely be extended significantly, pushing the trial back. And there's always the possibility that Fox will offer to settle out of court.
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If the suit does go to trial and the plaintiffs win, it could deal a harsh blow to unpaid internship programs throughout the film industry and the country.
But even if the plaintiffs in the Fox case settle or lose in court, Glatt's stand has already inspired others to join the fight. Diana Wang, also represented by Outten and Golden, cited Glatt's case in her lawsuit as a motivating factor in her decision to sue her former employer Hearst for failing to pay her when she was an intern. And a group of lawyers in New Jersey even started an entire law firm, Schneider and Rubin, dedicated to suing companies for allegedly illegal internship programs.
The outcome of the case may not, however, have any lingering consequences for Fox's internship program: In 2010, the company announced that it would start paying all interns $10 per hour.
Glatt, meanwhile, has become so invested in the fight for labor rights that he plans to enroll in Georgetown Law in a matter of weeks.