A federal judge in New York ruled that an unpaid intern was not an “employee” under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), deciding an issue of first impression.

The plaintiff in Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment, retaliation, and failure to hire under both the NYCHRL and the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”). The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. In reaching its decision, the court accepted the facts in plaintiff’s complaint as true. According to the plaintiff, her supervisor engaged in inappropriate conversations with her and invited her to his hotel room where he “held [her] tightly,” tried to kiss her, and squeezed her buttocks.

Plaintiff alleged that prior to this interaction, she discussed permanent employment with her supervisor, which would require the company to sponsor her work visa. After this, plaintiff claimed her supervisor was no longer interested in hiring her.

Though the plaintiff argued she qualified as an employee under the NYCHRL even though she was unpaid, the court disagreed. Similar rulings have already decided this issue under Title VII and the NYSHRL. Though the court acknowledged that NYCHRL claims must be analyzed separately from Title VII and NYSHRL claims, it refused to apply a broader interpretation to the definition of “employee.” Rather, the court held that absent remuneration, an individual cannot be considered an employee for purposes of the NYCHRL.

This is a positive ruling for New York employers who hire interns, as it prevents them from bringing certain claims. It is important to note, however, that the court permitted the plaintiff’s failure to hire action to proceed, finding it was plausible that she was not hired due to unlawful discrimination.