In what could be the first-ever unpaid-internship lawsuit filed on behalf of aspiring attorneys, a New York City law firm is being accused of acting as an intern mill amid the ongoing debate over the legality of unpaid internships.
A class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New York alleges that the Portela Law Firm, a relatively low-profile operation located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, violated state and federal labor laws by providing no educational experience for its unpaid interns and failing to compensate them for what was essentially grunt work. The suit was filed on behalf of Eddie Poff, a recent law-school grad from the Bronx, and as many as 40 former interns who worked for the firm from approximately March 2007 to the present.
According to the suit, Poff and others worked sometimes 40-plus hours a week stuffing envelopes, cleaning offices and performing other menial tasks while receiving no academic or vocational training. The suit claims that the law firm willfully classified the workers as interns when in fact they would be considered employees under New York labor laws and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The suit was filed by Poff’s attorneys, Virginia & Ambinder and Maurice Pianko, who has been on a crusade of sorts with his recently launched Intern Justice service, which is recruiting a network of attorneys to file lawsuits on behalf of unpaid interns.
Controversy surrounding unpaid internships has exploded in recent years thanks to high-profile cases against such companies as Fox Searchlight and Hearst Corp., and the PBS host Charlie Rose. Pianko, who in an email to IBTimes referred to the Portela Law Firm as “basically an intern mill,” said he thinks the Poff case is the first ever class-action suit against a law firm on behalf of unpaid interns.
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“This law firm had interns serving as translators, hand-delivering documents throughout New York City, and putting stamps on Christmas cards -- just overall nothing close to what an internship is supposed to be,” Pianko said. “One of the interns asked for $2 for a MetroCard to cover the cost of delivering the firm’s documents; he had to wait two hours until everyone left the office, for the boss to meet with him, and the boss refused, and advised him to buy an unlimited MetroCard.”
Manuel Portela, owner of the Portela Law Firm, is also named in the suit. Asked to comment, Portela said he was surprised by the lawsuit and believes the internship in question provided Poff with an educational benefit.
“The Portela Law Firm provided Mr. Poff exposure to the inner workings of a litigation practice in New York City,” he said in an emailed statement. “This lawsuit comes as a surprise as Mr. Poff was welcomed into the firm to supplement his academic training with practical experience. Our office generally denies engaging in any practices that [are] illegal or protected by the law.”
Interns are a common sight in law offices, and internships are often used as a springboard for aspiring attorneys looking to make connections and learn the ropes. David Lat, a lawyer founder of the legal website Above the Law, told IBTimes last month that he had mostly positive internship experiences that benefited his career. Lat has previously written about the issue for the New York Times.
However, even Lat admitted that many unpaid internships may technically violate the law. According to the FSLA, the internship experience should benefit the intern, not the employer. Moreover, interns may not displace regular employees. According to the lawsuit against Portela, the firm would have had to hire additional employees or require existing staff to work extra hours had it not been for the interns performing its office tasks.
Poff is currently the only official plaintiff attached to the case, but more plaintiffs may join the class action once the case is further along. Poff is seeking to reclaim unpaid regular wages and overtime wages.