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Reports: Judge Rules Unpaid Interns Can’t File Sex Harassment Suits

Intern At Chinese-Language Media Company Claimed Harassment By Boss
Gavel (Credit: Clipart)

Gavel (Credit: Clipart)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A federal judge has ruled that unpaid interns do not have the legal standing to bring sexual harassment claims against their employers, according to published reports.

In a ruling issued last week, Manhattan U.S. District Kevin Castel ruled against Lihuan Wang, 26, in her lawsuit against the Chinese-language media company Phoenix Satellite Television, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report.

Castel ruled that under New York City Human Rights Law, Wang cannot bring a claim against her employer because she was an unpaid intern and could not make a legal claim sexual harassment unless she was an employee, the publication reported.

Wang’s January lawsuit claimed that her then-boss, Phoenix Satellite Television Washington, D.C., Bureau Chief Zhengzhu Liu, had harassed her while she was working in a four-week unpaid internship at the company in New York between December 2009 and January 2010. At the time, Wang was a 22-year-old student at Syracuse University, the lawsuit said.

The suit claimed Liu’s behavior toward Wang and other female employees and interns included “unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments, and sexual assault – both in the office and outside it.” The suit alleged Liu groped and kissed the women and attempted to have sex with them.

“In all cases, the message – which Mr. Liu made explicit at times – was clear: if you want to advance in your career at Phoenix, you must submit to Mr. Liu’s unwanted sexual advances,” the suit said.

At one point during Wang’s internship, Liu visited New York treated her and everyone at the city’s bureau to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and asked her to come back to his hotel, the suit said. At the hotel, Liu allegedly asked Wang to name “her most beautiful feature,” and later allegedly took her to his room, tried to kiss her by force, and squeezed her buttocks, the suit said.

Liu also allegedly later invited Wang to Atlantic City to talk about job opportunities, the suit said.

The suit claimed after Wang graduated from college, Liu told her Phoenix could not sponsor her for a work visa in the U.S., “in clear retaliation for her refusing his sexual advances.”

But the judge ruled that despite the graphic allegations, Wang’s position did not permit her to file suit for sexual harassment, according to published reports. The court’s decision said the New York City Council has had numerous opportunities to change city law and protect unpaid interns, but has declined each time, Businessweek reported.

Wang continues to sue for failure to hire, even though Phoenix says she never applied for a position, the publication reported. An attorney told the publication that Liu is no longer employed by Phoenix.

Liu now lives in Shanghai, according to the suit.

The only state to extend workplace protections to unpaid interns so far is Oregon, which passed legislation in June, according to a USAToday report.

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