Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether an person must receive compensation in order to be considered an “employee” for purposes of meeting the 15-employee threshold for covered employers under Title VII. In Bryson v. Middlefield Volunteer Fire Dep’t, Inc., the plaintiff filed Title VII sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the defendant fire department, claiming that the fire chief subjected her to unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical contact of a sexual nature, including demands for sexual favors in return for pay raises. However, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, holding that the fire department’s firefighters were not employees during the relevant time period – and therefore could not be counted towards Title VII’s requirement that an employer have 15 employees in order to be subject to Title VII – because the fire department’s firefighters were volunteers.
The plaintiff appealed the district court’s ruling and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the district court erred in adding a significant-remuneration requirement as an independent antecedent to the common-law agency test. The court held that a putative employment relationship existed between the firefighters and the department because the department exercised sufficient control over the actions of the firefighters and the firefighters were compensated for their services – even if they were not on the department’s payroll – because there was a contractual relationship between the firefighters and department pursuant to which the firefighters provided firefighting services to the department in exchange for benefits from the department, including worker’s compensation coverage, insurance coverage, gift cards, personal use of the department’s facilities and assets, training, and access to an emergency fund. The Sixth Circuit held that the district court erred in limiting its analysis to remuneration without considering any other aspects of the department’s relationship with its firefighters because, although remuneration is a factor to be considered, it must be weighed with all other incidents of the relationship.
Employers who have a volunteer workforce should be aware of this decision and their potential liability under Title VII.