Unpaid Intern Sexual Harassment Case: Phoenix TV Journalist Was Also Accused Of Attempted Rape, Lawsuit Says

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The journalist at the center of a former intern’s sexual-harassment claim had a decadelong history of making aggressive, unwanted advances toward female employees and then retaliating when those advances weren’t returned, an ongoing lawsuit alleges.

Liu Zhengzhu, the former Washington bureau chief of Phoenix Satellite Television US, has been accused of numerous counts of harassment, including attempted rape, by at least nine women who worked for, or currently work for, the Chinese-language media company. Those women include Lihuan Wang, the former intern whose sexual-harassment claim was dismissed last week. In a decision currently stirring outrage among the intern advocacy movement, Judge P. Kevin Castel, of New York federal district court, ruled that because Wang was unpaid, she is not entitled to employee protections.

Wang, who was 22 when she interned for Phoenix TV’s New York office in 2010, alleged that Liu asked her back to his hotel room to discuss full-time employment. Once there, he allegedly made aggressive sexual advances toward Wang, throwing his arms around her and asking, “Why are you so beautiful?”

Apparently the behavior is not so uncommon for Liu. In a lawsuit filed in July, five U.S.-based employees of the company made similar claims, saying Liu routinely lured and pressured female employees, interns and job candidates into visiting his hotel room under the guise of discussing either their job performance or employment opportunities. The redacted complaint, posted online by the WUSA9 TV station, reads like something out of the Dark Ages:

“Throughout his employment with Phoenix, Mr. Liu sexually harassed and sexually assaulted Phoenix’s female employees and interns. This sexually aggressive behavior included unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments and sexual assault -- both in the office and outside the office at interviews and work-related events. In one case, he went to a female employee’s home and attempted to rape her.”

The lawsuit adds that Liu would retaliate against women who were not receptive to his advances, subjecting them to “harsh work conditions, denying them job opportunities and firing them.”

Following the allegations, Liu was fired from Phoenix in December of 2012. According to Chinese news reports, Phoenix Media Group, which is based in Hong Kong, has close ties to top members of the Chinese Communist Party. Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc. (NASDAQ:FOXA) owns a minority stake in the company.

Last week’s ruling underscores yet another reason why federal and state labor laws are inadequate and out of date when it comes to protecting unpaid interns, who operate in a limbic state of employment: vital to the workforce but not technically a part of it. Fair-labor advocates say companies like Phoenix, for which internships are a routine part of their operations, have little incentive to provide interns with even the most basic employee rights, as the dismissal of Wang’s sexual-harassment claim shows.

“Phoenix Satellite got a double benefit here,” said David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University Law School and director of the New Workplace Institute. “They didn’t have to pay this young woman, and then because they didn’t pay her, they’re able to claim she’s not an employee and therefore can’t sue them for sexual harassment.”

Yamada, who has been following the intern economy for a decade, and who has been blogging about the Wang case, said in a phone interview that he believes Wang might have been more successful had she brought a wage claim against Phoenix, but that a drawn-out labor dispute might have lasted beyond the statute of limitations for a sexual-harassment claim. Another option, he said, might have been to bring about a tort case for emotional distress, but such cases are legally limited.

“Between private individuals it usually boils down to personal injury type claims, which are very hard to win,” he said.

Wang is still going forward with a failure-to-hire lawsuit against Phoenix, as her attorneys at the Bernabei & Wachtel law firm noted on their website Wednesday. But such a case will likely do little to advance the perpetually murky legal status of unpaid interns, an issue Yamada believes is one whose time has come.

“This generation is making this issue their own,” he said. “In addition to the sky-high tuition and the job market, I think the unpaid internship issue might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s like, ‘Now, I have to work for free?’ They’re getting appropriately resentful and angry about that.”

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