6th Circuit Determines Volunteers May Be Considered Employees In Bryson v. Middlefield Volunteer Fire Dep’t Inc.

Nearly 50 years ago Congress passed federal law prohibiting employment discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against employees, former employees and applicants for employment based on their sex, race, color, religion and national origin. Additional federal laws have been passed to prohibit disability discrimination and age discrimination. A seemingly simple question is raised by many workers in determining whether these discrimination laws apply to them and provides them protection – i.e. who is an employee?

A recent case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals evaluated what factors are involved in determining a person’s status as an employee under Title VII, allowing an individual protection from discrimination. In Bryson v. Middlefield Volunteer Fire Dep’t Inc., an administrative aide to a volunteer fire department alleged that she had been sexually harassed by the Fire Chief. She further asserted that after complaining of the harassment she was retaliated against, leading to her constructive discharge.

The lower court dismissed the claim reasoning that even though the administrative assistant was an employee, the members of the volunteer fire department did not receive pay and as a result were not employees. Because Title VII only applies to employers who employ at least 15 employees, the court determined federal sexual discrimination law was not applicable.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit reversed the lower court decision. The court noted that although receiving pay and other benefits is important in determining whether an individual is an “employee” for purposes of discrimination laws, other factors are important as well. Following a multi-factor test adopted by the Supreme Court, these considerations include not only method of payment, but also “the hiring party’s right to control the manner and means by which work is accomplished, the skills required, location of work, ownership of the job’s instrumentalities and tools, and other similar factors.” Based on all of these considerations, the 6th Circuit determined that in certain circumstances a volunteer could be considered an employee.

If you believe you have been subject to discrimination at work, one of the first considerations is whether federal or state discrimination laws protect you. Consulting with an experienced Georgia employment discrimination lawyer is important to answer your questions and determine your next steps.

For more information concerning discrimination laws or if you believe you have been the victim of harassment or discrimination, contact the compassionate Atlanta workplace discrimination lawyers at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP for a confidential case evaluation.