The extent to which the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies to internships and other similar training programs was one of the cutting edge legal issues argued during last spring’s Jenkins Honors Moot Court Competition. In the months since the Jenkins Competition concluded, both the Second Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit have issued rulings that clarify the legal issues addressed in the Jenkins Competition. The treatment of interns under the Fair Labor Standards Act is once again making news.
The fictitious respondent in the Jenkins Competition was a law student who participated in an unpaid internship at a large, for-profit law firm. As part of this program, the student primarily worked on pro bono matters under the supervision of a senior attorney. The student was also able to participate in a mock trial and attend weekly training lunches. However, the student also volunteered to work on a number of projects that were not attached to any pro bono cases or training. They were more of an administrative or secretarial nature. After an unceremonious dismissal from the program (which was the basis for another claim in the case), the law student brought a suit against the firm, claiming that she was owed compensation for the work she did under her summer internship program because she qualified as an employee under the FLSA. The law firm, as one would expect, challenged this assertion, claiming that the student fell under the “trainee” exception carved out by the Supreme Court in Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. (1947).
The Court in Walling clearly meant to provide an opportunity for individuals to be trained without pay by a for-profit business in an industry the individual hoped to enter later. In its ruling, the Court ruled that the FLSA’s definition of an employee as someone who is “suffer[ed] or permit[ed] to work” was “obviously not intended to stamp all [working] persons as employees.” The Court saw the benefit of internship programs for both those seeking to be trained as well as the businesses seeking to develop their future workforce; classifying all such individuals as employees under the FLSA, and thus requiring payment, would limit training opportunities and hurt both groups. The problem with the Court’s ruling in Walling is that it did not establish a clear test for determining whether an individual is an intern or whether she is an employee covered by the protections in the FLSA.