The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded, in a July 29, 2020, decision*, that an unpaid student intern working at a local nonprofit was entitled to the same protection against discrimination found in the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) as paid employees.
In that case, a graduate student was gaining clinical experience via a practicum at a local nonprofit hospital. The Court said the student was subjected to significant and pervasive sex and race-based discrimination by her supervisor at the hospital. When the student sued the hospital claiming sex and race-based discrimination, the District Court concluded that because she was unpaid, she was not entitled to protection under the MHRA. The Court of Appeals did not address the issue.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower Court, concluding that where there are reasons to treat an unpaid student intern as an employee, the MHRA’s protections will apply. Factors the Court found important in reaching this result included:
- the student went through a typical application process to obtain the internship,
- she was accepted by the hospital,
- she was provided the human resources and IT training and support of an employee,
- she provided services to the hospital and its patients in the same manner as paid staff, and
- the hospital controlled the manner and means of the student’s work.
- Nonprofits often provide academic opportunities for unpaid student interns. Under this new Minnesota common law, interns who do work similarly to employees (per the factors above) may be treated as employees for purposes of the protections found in the MHRA. This means students may be able to state a valid MHRA claim against nonprofits offering unpaid student internships despite the fact that the student intern receives no wages, benefits, or other payment.
- Nonprofits with unpaid student internship or volunteer programs should evaluate their programs, and the factors listed above to determine whether the nonprofit could be determined to be the employer of the interns or volunteers, for purposes of the MHRA under this new Minnesota common law rule.
- In this case, the Court noted that the unpaid intern regularly raised concerns about her supervisor’s discriminatory behavior to others within the nonprofit, including to human resources representatives. Where an unpaid intern or volunteer raises discrimination concerns or allegations, nonprofits should investigate those claims carefully after seeking advice from employment counsel.
*Abel v. Abbott Nw. Hosp., No. A19-0461, 2020 WL 4342917, at *1 (Minn. July 29, 2020)