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Ex-Intern Sues Clippers, Sterling Trust for Not Getting Paid

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 13, 2014 9:17 AM

A former Los Angeles Clippers intern is now suing the team and the Sterling Family Trust over not being paid for his work.

Frank Cooper claims that he worked 40- to 50-hour weeks for two months in the fall of 2012 as an "unpaid fan relations intern," reports the Los Angeles Times. Cooper asserts he deserves compensation because he performed the same work as a regular, paid employee.

Is embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling ready to be hit with yet another employment suit?

Unpaid Interns Can't Sub for Actual Employees

Cooper filed his suit against the Clippers and the Sterling Family Trust in federal court on Tuesday. According to the Times, the ex-intern alleges he "frequently performed the same tasks as paid employees." This included mailing out season tickets, supervising autograph sessions, staffing fan booths, and organizing basketball clinics. Basically, Cooper feels he worked as an employee so he deserves to be paid.

The Clippers aren't the first to be hit by a lawsuit for misuse of unpaid interns. In one of the most high-profile unpaid-intern lawsuits, Fox Searchlight was slammed in a federal suit by unpaid interns who worked on the movie "Black Swan"; the court agreed that the unpaid internship program violated federal labor laws.

One of the key points in the "Black Swan" case was that interns can't be used like regular workers without being paid at least minimum wage.

That means if a normal fan-relations employee was essentially subbed-out for unpaid intern Cooper, the Clippers may have violated federal minimum-wage and overtime laws.

Unpaid Internships Must Be for Intern's Benefit

This guidance for unpaid internships isn't exactly new. The Department of Labor has maintained for years that unpaid internships must be for the intern's benefit, not the employer's. Among other things, this guidance means that unpaid interns:

  • Cannot displace regular employees,
  • Must receive training similar to that given in an educational environment, and
  • Cannot be promised a job as part of the internship.

It's unclear what the educational value of Cooper's internship might have been, or whether he was promised a job by Sterling or the Clippers. If either are true, then the team could join a long list of employers being brought to task for misclassifying unpaid interns.

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