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Loophole puts interns at risk of sexual harassment

(MoneyWatch)  A federal court ruling last week in New York that an unpaid TV intern had no legal basis for filing a sexual harassment claim is shining a spotlight on a loophole in the law in many states.

U.S. District Court judge P. Kevin Castel found that the intern, Lihuan Wang, did not have the right to sue after her supervisor allegedly groped her and then denied her a job. Because Wang was unpaid, she could not technically be considered an "employee" under New York law, and for that reason had no standing to file the suit, Castel ruled. 

"You have no protection from sexual harassment in the workplace in most states," said Lynne Bernabei, the plaintiff's attorney.

Wang, a Chinese national, was an intern at Phoenix Satellite Television US, a Chinese-language TV provider, when she said her supervisor lured her to his New York hotel room, tried to kiss her, groped her and then later refused to hire her because he was rebuffed.

Legal experts said the ruling points to a hole in labor law that leaves many interns at risk of harassment.

"It reveals a very important gap that I think needs to be addressed," said Indiana University Law professor Deborah Widiss.

Some states, like Oregon and the District of Columbia, do have laws on the books protecting interns, but that is not the case in most places. "I think a lot of people are shocked that interns are not protected. Interns are usually embarking on their first job and are very vulnerable in the workplace," said Bernabei.

Widiss's colleague, Indiana University labor law expert Ken Dau-Schmidt said interns should be protected. "Here she's basically on a very long job application. She should have been protected as a job applicant."

Widiss said she thinks the laws will catch up. "It's an issue that is gaining increased attention," she said. "I do think it's something that more states and local laws will consider, making amendments to make clear that at least where harassing conduct happens that there is some kind of remedy under the employment discrimination laws."

Castel did let stand a second part of Wang's complaint, a retaliation claim alleging she was denied a permanent job because she refused the supervisor's advances. Bernabei indicated they do plan to move forward with that portion of the complaint.