Volunteers of Non-Profits Cannot Pursue Employment Discrimination Action, Says 6th Circuit

November 19, 2014 - In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which includes Ohio) ruled in favor of two non-profit organizations in an action for employment discrimination brought by a pair of former volunteers.  When the organizations discontinued the relationship with the long-time volunteers, who were both Catholic nuns, the Sisters filed suit, claiming religious discrimination, retaliation, and harassment.  The trial court granted summary judgment, making a decision without a trial, in favor of the defendants.  On appeal, the issue presented was whether the plaintiffs were true volunteers or were, as the Sisters argued, employees. 

The Sixth Circuit Court resolved this issue in favor of the non-profit organizations, citing the fact that the Sisters were not paid a regular salary, were not provided with medical, vision, or dental insurance, did not receive or complete W-2, W-4, or I-9 forms, and did not pay income taxes as a result of their involvement with the non-profits.  The Sisters countered that they received such job-based benefits as workers’ compensation insurance eligibility, liability insurance for injuries sustained during service, in-kind donations, and reimbursement for travel on organization business, as well as educational and networking opportunities.  The Court found this argument unpersuasive, however, deeming these items to be “simply incidental” to the Sisters’ efforts on behalf of the organizations, rather than financial consideration in return for services. 

In addition to these financial matters, the Court paid close attention to the extent to which the non-profits controlled the “means and manner” in which the volunteers performed their activities.  The Court noted that the organizations did not require the Sisters to operate according to a fixed schedule and did not closely control their volunteer work.  Unlike a true employment situation, the non-profits in this case lacked the ability to deprive the individuals of a source of income by terminating the relationship, because the individuals received no income from the organizations.  Thus, the necessary element of control was found lacking.

The Court’s holding provides non-profit organizations with a strong defense against employment discrimination actions brought by volunteers, under either federal or Ohio law, and also provides guidelines that non-profit organizations may follow to preserve the important distinction between volunteers and employees. 

To learn more about this case and how to protect your non-profit please contact your Day Ketterer attorney at 330.455.0173 or email Jill McQueen at jcmqueen@dayketterer.com.