Less than a week after filing a lawsuit against CBS Corp. (NYSE:CBS) and David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc., a former unpaid intern issued an apology and dropped the case.
Mallory Musallam, a graduate of New York University, said she was coerced into the litigation by “a beguiling legion of lawsuit-hungry attorneys” who contacted her via LinkedIn. She issued a letter of apology Wednesday and shared it with the New York Post and Daily News, both of which published excerpts.
“While I am ultimately responsible for my actions as an adult, I was caught in a weak, vulnerable time, facing student debt,” Musallam reportedly wrote.
The case was filed by the law firms Virginia & Ambinder and Leeds Brown Law P.C., which have been collaborating on intern lawsuits for more than a year, and have filed such cases against Atlantic Records, Sirius XM Radio, Sony and others. The two firms run a website called Internship Rights, which claims to “aggressively fight for the rights of unpaid interns and underpaid trainees nationwide.”
The firms did not respond to phone calls requesting a comment.
In the legal complaint, the attorneys said Musallam was misclassified as being exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements. The suit claimed she worked in excess of 40 hours a week and was provided no academic or vocational training -- essentially doing the work of an employee without pay.
It’s not hard to see why Musallam might have had second thoughts. The case was filed as a proposed class action, meaning the lawyers were hoping to include similarly situated interns -- about 100 in all -- but there was no guarantee that others would be permitted to join the suit. (Judges have not always been so friendly to such proposals: Last year, a New York court denied class-action status for a group of interns suing Hearst Corp.)
But in the end it was Musallam’s name on the complaint, and she told the Post she was surprised to find herself the “lone ranger” named as a plaintiff in the court papers. Following news of the lawsuit, the 26-year-old was harassed on Twitter and in media reports. The always-classy Daily Mail dug up old photos from her MySpace page, posting them presumably without permission. The blog FTVlive.com mocked Musallam in an article bylined (ironically) by an intern. “Whatever happened to getting college credit and some experience to get a job from your internship?” the unnamed blogger wrote.
Numerous people tweeted at Musallam, saying she should have been grateful for the opportunity to work for free. “Thousands of people, far more talented and deserving than you, would kill for the opportunities you’ve been given,” one person tweeted.
An email request sent to Musallam bounced back with an "undeliverable" error message.
Supporters of unpaid internships contend that they provide valuable experience and lead to job placement, but research is challenging that idea. Two recent studies -- one from the group Intern Bridge and another from National Association of Colleges and Employers -- indicated that students who did unpaid internships were not much more likely to get a job offer than those who did none at all. Paid internships, however, appear to give students a measurable leg up, according to the Atlantic.
Musallam reportedly did no less than four internships, including with Al Roker, Entertainment Tonight and W magazine, according to the Post. She said she was unemployed when lawyers contacted her.
The U.S. Department of Labor says unpaid internships are only legal for training purposes. Labor-rights advocates say students themselves are often unaware that unpaid internships violate the law, and in many cases may feel the experience was a valuable one. That certainly seems like the case this time. As Musallam wrote in her letter, “I was by no means looking for a trap door out by exploiting your established organization and I cannot apologize enough for this debacle.”