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Recently, there has been much talk about unpaid interns and what sort of legal protections they should receive. In the summer of 2013, several groups of unpaid interns filed class action lawsuits against employers seeking the protections available to “employees” under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and comparable state laws. While these unpaid interns were seeking payment for their time, individuals in similar positions may not be protected by other employment laws.

Here at home, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin will be joining the debate at the state level. On March 13, 2014 the Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in Masri v. LIRC and Medical College of Wisconsin. The issue in the case is whether an unpaid intern at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is an “employee” for purposes of the Wisconsin’s Health Care Worker Protection Act (HCWPA) and is thus able to file a complaint for employment retaliation under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA).

As an unpaid intern at MCW, Masri worked forty hours per week. In the decision the Justices explained that Masri received  “office space, support staff, free parking, full access to facilities and patient records, and professional networking opportunities. [Her] supervisor promised to provide her with health insurance coverage and the ability to pursue grants, but Masri received neither before her termination.” After working for a few months, Masri reported to her superiors that she had observed unethical conduct at MCW. Not long after she made her report, MCW terminated her.

In response, Masri went to the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division (ERD) and filed a complaint against MCW alleging retaliation under WFEA. The ERD dismissed her complaint for lack of jurisdiction because she was not an “employee” under the HCWPA statue. She appealed and an Administrative Law Judge affirmed the dismissal. The Labor and Industry Review Commission, the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals also affirmed the dismissal.

In the Court of Appeals decision, the majority determined that a plain reading of the statute required finding that Masri was not afforded “employee” protections. Judge Ralph Adam Fine dissented on public policy grounds. Judge Fine noted that the purpose of the HCWPA is to prevent “health-care facilities and providers from using retaliation or the threat of retaliation in order to keep hidden their dirty linen.” 

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin accepted the case for review to determine whether a statutory or public policy analysis will prevail. Even if the court determines that Masri is not entitled to employee protections under the HCWPA statute, it is possible that the legislature could revise the law to include unpaid interns as protected individuals.

Be sure to check back as we keep you up to date on this case.

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