HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) – The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that there is a clear delineation between an employee and a volunteer in an organization, drawing the line between who can claim discrimination.
On July 26, the court ruled in the case of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) vs. Echo Hose Ambulance. The crux of the case was whether volunteers could, and should, receive coverage under Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws, particularly the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA).
Echo Hose Ambulance volunteer Sarah Puryear had been initially suspended and later dismissed from the organization and, claiming discrimination, filed suit with CHRO against Echo Hose and its host city of Shelton.
She alleged that her release went against the CFEPA regulations. That suit was dismissed by the trial court, which noted that Puryear was a volunteer, not a paid employee, and therefore was not entitled to the protections afforded by CFEPA.
Peter Murphy, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin LLP, told Legal Newsline that he understands why CHRO initially took on this case.
"CHRO took on this case as they have been seeking to expand its jurisdiction and the coverage of the laws it oversees. In this case, it wanted to look at unpaid interns and how they were covered (under CFEPA)," he said.
Puryear appealed the initial court decision, stating she was an employee under the definition provided by CFEPA. CFEPA considers an employee to be "any person employed by an employer."
The Supreme Court looked to similarly themed cases that came out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. What the court found was that the outcome in similar cases varied.
What was common among them all though was the use of a "remuneration test" to decide when a volunteer crosses over into the classification of employee by receiving some sort of benefits, pay, or services that could put them in a position to be receiving a fair value for their services, including, but not limited to, insurance, paid time off, holiday bonuses and service trades..
The remuneration test requires that the court hearing the individual case conduct a two-step inquiry by requiring that a volunteer first show remuneration as a threshold matter before proceeding to the second step — analyzing the putative employment relationship under the common-law agency test.
Remuneration may consist of either direct compensation, such as a salary or wages, or indirect benefits that are not merely incidental to the activity performed.
Puryear made no claim that she had received any form of "payment" for her services. By applying the remuneration test, Puryear's claim did not pass the first step.
"This ruling is consistent with a vast majority of appellate court rulings. The Connecticut appellate court relied on consistent federal law and litigation changes with their decision," Murphy said.
Because this ruling follows a fairly established pattern, it is unlikely that this case will have broader ramifications in Connecticut or beyond. Murphy said.
"Courts are going to continue to rule in this consistent manner," he said.