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Stephanie Goldberg

Unpaid intern doesn't count as employee in retaliation case: Wis. high court

July 24, 2014 - 12:43pm


An unpaid psychologist intern is not considered an employee and therefore not entitled to protections under Wisconsin's anti-retaliation law for health care workers, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Asma Masri was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when she began working as a psychologist intern for the Medical College of Wisconsin in August 2008, court records show.

Ms. Masri, who was assigned to the transplant surgery unit at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, met with the department of surgery administrator at the Medical College of Wisconsin to report “clinical/ethical concerns” in November 2008, according to records. Less than one week later, Ms. Masri's supervisor, the director of transplant psychological services at the Medical College of Wisconsin, terminated her internship.

In August 2009, records show that Ms. Masri filed a retaliation complaint against the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The department's equal rights division said Ms. Masri might be protected under the state's anti-retaliation law, which prohibits retaliation against health care workers who've reported violations of laws, rules or quality of care standards, records show.

The Medical College of Wisconsin responded to the complaint later that month, stating that Ms. Masri wasn't covered by the law because she was an unpaid intern, not an employee, according to records. It also said she was “terminated due to concerns with her performance and that these alleged concerns began before (she) made her complaints.”

An administrative law judge for the equal rights division determined in January 2010 that Ms. Masri was not an employee because she didn't receive any financial compensation and therefore isn't protected under the anti-retaliation law, records show. The Labor and Industry Review Commission affirmed the decision in August 2011.

According to records, Ms. Masri then filed a petition for review with the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, which affirmed the decision of the judge and the Commission in April 2012. Ms. Masri appealed.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court's decision, leading Ms. Masri to petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court for review, according to records.

No tangible benefits

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that because Ms. Masri didn't receive compensation or tangible benefits, she was not an employee of the Medical College of Wisconsin and that she's not entitled to anti-retaliation protections.

“Masri suggests that her all-access security badge, office space, parking, and support staff were tangible benefits that made her an employee,” the ruling states. “These alleged tangible benefits all related to Masri's work as a 'Psychologist Intern' and had no independent value. If these benefits were enough to confer employee status on Masri, it seems that almost any unpaid worker would be considered an employee.”

One of two dissenting justices wrote that the anti-retaliation law's “coverage extends to 'any person.' Further, even if the Act's coverage were limited to employees only, the canons of statutory construction mandate that 'employee' be interpreted broadly in order to fulfill the remedial purpose of the Act.”

 



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