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Unpaid Intern Not Protected From Sexual Harassment

A New York federal court ruled that a woman cannot sue the broadcasting company where she interned for sexual harassment because she was unpaid.

According to the court's memorandum and order, the former intern, Lihuan Wang, sued after an incident that occurred in January 2010 when she was a 22-year-old Master's Degree student at Syracuse University interning with Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. in New York. Wang's direct supervisor, Zhengzhu Liu, based in Washington, DC, had invited Wang and her co-workers to lunch. Liu asked Wang to stay afterwards to discuss her work performance. After getting her alone, Liu asked Wang to come with him to his hotel room so he could drop off some personal belongings. In the car ride to the hotel, Liu made sexual comments that made Wang extremely uncomfortable. When they arrived at the hotel, Wang attempted to talk more about her internship, but she alleges that Liu instead asked her to name her most beautiful feature and told her her eyes were beautiful. When he asked her to go to his hotel room, Wang went, explaining to the Court that she felt uncomfortable but compelled to go because he was her supervisor. In the hotel room, Liu removed his shirt jacket and tie, put his arms around her, held her tightly, tried to kiss her by force, and squeezed her butt. She pushed him away, saying "I don't want this," and she quickly left the room.

After the incident, Wang, a Chinese citizen, alleges that Liu no longer expressed interest in hiring her permanently once she completed her Master's Degree. Liu started emphasizing that he could not sponsor her to work with them because there was a "visa quota." At the time, Liu supervised both the Washington, DC and New York City bureaus of Pheonix. He exercised complete authority over the hiring, termination, and interviewing of all employees and interns.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Wang was not protected from sexual harassment by the New York State Human Rights Law or New York City Human Rights Law because she was unpaid. The Court explained that like Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the state law required that interns receive remuneration, like compensation or benefits, to be protected.

Media Resources: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Bloomberg Businessweek 10/8/13; ThinkProgress 10/9/13; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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