March 2011 Archives

March 17, 2011

Is it legal for a nonprofit organization to use unpaid interns?

iStock_000000723468XSmall.jpgAs our last post explained, for-profit businesses are very limited in their ability to use unpaid interns legally. Unless the internship program meets six different criteria to qualify the intern as a trainee, the intern is an employee subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (or FLSA), and the business must comply with the requirements to pay minimum wage and overtime compensation. Nonprofit organizations may also have trainees, and the analysis that applies to businesses also applies to nonprofits.

For nonprofits, however, there is a third possibility. The intern may qualify as a volunteer, in which case the intern is not an employee under FLSA and not subject to the minimum wage and overtime compensation requirements. The footnote to Fact Sheet #71 issued last year by the Department of Labor explained that the Department's Wage and Hour Division recognizes an exception to FSLA for individuals who volunteer their time to nonprofit organizations for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes, provided they do so freely and without expecting any compensation. In those situations, unpaid internships are generally allowable.

There are some limits, however. Perhaps most importantly, individuals who work in a commercial operation (such as a clothing store or a farm) operated by a nonprofit organization are likely to be deemed employees and therefore subject to the FLSA. That's essentially what happened in the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation vs. Secretary of Labor. Although that case had the additional factor that the individuals who worked for the nonprofit also received benefits such as clothing and room and board, in my opinion it is likely the Court would have reached the same decision even if the individuals had received nothing.

In addition, the Wage and Hour Division has hinted that relevant factors might also include whether the intern works full-time and whether the intern displaces any employees. For example, in a 2006 opinion letter, in describing the exemption for volunteers, the Division stated,

"Typically, such volunteers serve on a part-time basis and do not displace paid workers or perform work that would otherwise be performed by employees."
However, I'm not aware of any guidance to indicate that the Department of Labor will take the position that working full time, in and of itself, precludes an individual from being considered a volunteer.

Although the volunteer must work without any expectation of being paid, it is nonetheless permissible for the nonprofit to pay the expenses of the volunteer, to provide some reasonable benefits, and even to pay a nominal fee. In order for the fee to be "nominal," the amount may not depend on the volunteer's productivity or the number of hours worked. In addition, the fee or stipend should not exceed 20% of the amount it would cost the nonprofit organization to pay an employee to perform the same tasks. For more explanation, you might want to read Opinion Letter FLSA2005-51.

A final note of caution: As I mentioned in the entry dealing with business interns, determining whether an intern is either a trainee or a volunteer, and therefore not an employee, is relevant only for the Fair Labor Standards Act. There are many other legal requirements, including state law requirements, that apply to "employees," and each of those requirements has its own definition which may be different from the FLSA definition.

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March 15, 2011

Is it legal for a business to use unpaid interns?

iStock_000005128841XSmall.jpgWith summer vacation approaching, and with the job market being what it is, small business owners may be approached by college or high school students offering to work as undpaid interns. At first, that may seem like a great idea -- the business gets free help for the summer, maybe to fill in for vacationing employees, and the student gains experience and a chance to build a resume. Sounds like a win-win situation, right?

Well, maybe not. In fact, the situation could place the business on the receiving end of a lawsuit or government enforcement action. The problem is that most interns at for-profit businesses qualify as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FSLA, and must be paid at least minimum wage and overtime compensation if they work more than 40 hours in a week). In other words, you can't avoid paying minimum wage by paying nothing.

However, there is a very narrow exception for interns that qualify as "trainees." Last April, the Department of Labor published Fact Sheet #71, listing the criteria for determining whether an intern is a trainee. If an internship has all six of the following characteristics, the intern is not classified as an employee under the FLSA.

  1. The intern receives training similar to the training he or she would receive in an educational environment. Preferably, the program should be centered on a classroom or academic setting, not on the business's operations. Ideally, the program should be associated with an educational institution that gives the intern academic credit for the program.
  2. The internship is for the benefit of the intern. If the intern's activities are primarily for the benefit of the employer (see item 5), the fact that the intern also acquires useful job skills is not sufficient to classify him or her as a trainee. Ideally, the intern will learn skills that are useful to other employers, not just to the business sponsoring the program.
  3. The intern does not displace employees. Instead, existing employees closely supervise the intern's work. If the business uses an internship to supplement its staff or to fill in for employees who are absent or on vacation, the intern is an employee, not a trainee.
  4. The business does not derive an immediate advantage from the intern's work; in fact, the internship may even impede the business's operations. Although it can probably be argued that the business always derives some amount of benefit from the internship program, the internship must be primarily and predominantly for the benefit of the intern, not the benefit of the business.
  5. The business will not necessarily employ the intern when the internship is finished. If the business uses the internship as a trial period for prospective employees, the intern is probably an employee, not a trainee.
  6. The intern and the business understand that the intern will not be paid during the internship.

Given those criteria, it's easy to understand why a Department of Labor official told The New York Times last year that most unpaid internships with for-profit businesses are not legal. (The story is different, however, for internships with governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations. That's the topic of a future blog post.)

When the Department of Labor released Fact Sheet #71 last April, some news sources and bloggers described the six criteria listed above as "new regulations." In fact, the criteria are are not new, and they are not regulations. They originated in 1947 with Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with a training program for prospective railyard brakemen. Since then the criteria have been applied, explained, and refined by lower courts and the Department of Labor. Rather than a new regulation, Fact Sheet #71 can be seen as the Department's warning shot across the bow of businesses that use "unpaid interns" as a source of free labor.

A note of caution about the use of these criteria. If the internship satisfies all six of the above criteria, the intern is deemed to be a trainee and not an employee, but only for determining whether the Fair Labor Standards Act applies. That's only one of many contexts in which the categorization of a person as an "employee" carries legal significance, and different criteria apply in each of those different contexts. Even though a trainee is not an employee for FSLA purposes, he or she may be an employee for other purposes, including the relevant state labor laws.

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March 10, 2011

Always read agreements before signing them

iStock_000007398822XSmall.jpgMost people understand that signing a contract creates a binding agreement with the other party. Of course, there are some exceptions to this general rule, such as when a court finds that one party was fraudulently induced into signing the agreement. However, Indiana law does not let you recover damages or be released from a contract simply because you did not take the time to read the agreement before signing.

One Indiana physician learned this lesson the hard way. In the case of Krad v. BP Products North America, BP wanted to build a gas station on property owned by Dr. Krad. However, BP need only a portion of Dr. Krad's property, not all of it. With the assistance of a real estate broker, BP approached Dr. Krad with a proposal to lease part of Dr. Krad's property, and the discussions led to a letter of intent that described the approximate size of the parcel that BP would lease. Eventually, BP gave Dr. Krad a proposed lease agreement, and Dr. Krad signed it after a review by his attorney. Although a preliminary survey had been completed, the lease agreement did not contain a legal description of the leased property. Instead, it stated that another survey would be completed within sixty days after the lease agreement was signed, and the final survey report would be attached to it as an exhibit, subject to approval by both BP and Dr. Krad. In other words, the lease agreement would not be complete until Dr. Krad signed the final survey report.

After the lease agreement was signed, BP decided it needed more land than it had anticipated and ordered a final survey of a larger piece of Dr. Krad's property, apparently without discussing it with Dr. Krad. The final survey report, which contained a legal description of the larger piece of property, was delivered by the broker to Dr. Krad at his office. The broker interrupted Dr. Krad while he was with a patient and asked him to sign the survey report so it could be recorded. Dr. Krad signed the report without reading it and without telling his attorney or asking his attorney to review the report, assuming that the report described the piece of property that was originally discussed.

Dr. Krad knew something was amiss when the construction equipment arrived and started site preparation outside the boundaries of the parcel he assumed he had leased to BP. Eventually, Dr. Krad sued BP, asking for additional compensation for the difference between the size of the parcel he thought he had leased and the size of the property actually described in the final survey report.

Dr. Krad lost at both the trial court level and in the Indiana Court of Appeals. As the Court of Appeals wrote,

Under Indiana law, a person is presumed to understand what he signs and cannot be released from a contract due to his failure to read it. . . . Mere neglect will not relieve a party of the terms of an agreement in the absence of some excuse for the neglect, such as fraud, trickery, misrepresentation, or breach of trust or confidence.

Although the court acknowledged that the final survey report was given to Dr. Krad "somewhat abruptly," it found that neither BP nor the broker did anything fraudulent in getting Dr. Krad to sign it. He was free to accept it or to reject it. In addtion, the court pointed out that, without a legal description, the lease agreement was an unenforceable agreement to agree, and, if Dr. Krad had refused to sign the survey report, he could have walked away from the deal or he could have pressed BP for more money.

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March 7, 2011

Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 7. It's a bundle of tax choices.

[This is the last of a seven-part series of posts discussing the characteristics of limited liability companies and comparing them to the characteristics of corporations, general partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Here's the entire list.

Part 1. Background on sole proprietorships.
Part 2. Background on partnerships.
Part 3. Background on corporations.
Part 4. LLCs are distinct legal entities, separate from their owners.
Part 5. A limited liability company's owners are not liable for the LLC's obligations.
Part 6. Options for an LLC's management structure.
Part 7. Options for an LLC's tax treatment.]

iStock_000007266907XSmall.jpgIn prior posts, I've discussed several characteristics of LLCs. First, like corporations, LLCs are entities separate from their owners. Second, also like corporations, the owners are not liable for the obliigations of the LLC. Third, they offer choices of management structures: They can be managed directly by the owners, like sole proprietorships and many partnerships, or they can be managed by others who are selected by the owners, in much the same way that shareholders of a corporation elect directors to run the business. This last post of the series looks at the tax characteristics of LLCs.

Interestingly, LLCs do not have a specific category in the Internal Revenue Code or the Tax Regulations. Instead, their tax treatment is governed by the so-called "check-the-box regulation." It provides that the LLC may elect to be treated in one of several ways, and the choices depend on whether the LLC has one member or more than one member.

The default status for a single-member LLC is that it is a "disregarded entity" in that all the income and expenses go directly on the member's personal tax return, just like a sole proprietorship. The LLC itself doesn't even have to file a tax return. The default status for a multi-member LLC is to be taxed as if it were a partnership. Alternatively, either a single-member LLC or a multi-member LLC can elect to be taxed as if it were a corporation, either as a Subchapter C corporation or, if the LLC meets certain criteria, as a Subchapter S corporation. To decide which is the best tax strategy for your LLC, you should consult both your lawyer and your accountant.

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