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Volunteers for Public Entity Not Employees for Purposes of Anti-discrimination Statute



By Max Nuyen

A large municipal police force in California included a reserve component made up of volunteers. Although the reserve police volunteers served without pay, they were considered “employees” for purposes of workers’ compensation benefits. The administrative code of the police department specifically stated reserve officers “shall be volunteer workers only and shall not be, or be deemed to be, employees of the City or the Police Department for any purpose other than [workers’ compensation]” benefits. This was to ensure any reservist injured on the job would receive the necessary medical treatment to make them whole.

The volunteer in this case had been in the position for over 17 years. He was injured in the line of duty twice, both times involving vehicle accidents. The volunteer was able to obtain full worker’s compensation coverage for his injuries on both occasions. The injuries from his second accident never fully resolved, leaving the volunteer with disabilities.

In 2005, the police department launched an investigation against the volunteer because he was accused of selling dietary supplements on the side which contained unlawful ingredients. The investigation led to the termination of the volunteer from the reserve police force.  Following the termination, the volunteer sued the police department for discrimination. He alleged that the police department wrongfully terminated him on account of his disability.

The primary issue presented in this case is whether the volunteer was an employee for purposes of the anti-discrimination statute. If he was considered an employee, his case would be able to move forward. If he was not, then he would have no standing to sue because anti-discrimination statutes only apply when there is an employment relationship between the parties.

The volunteer argued he should be deemed an employee because even though he did not receive compensation from the police department for his work, the benefits he did receive, such as workers’ compensation insurance coverage, should create an employment relationship. The appellate court was not moved by the volunteer’s argument, observing the municipal regulations specifically limited the volunteer’s relationship with the police department. While the volunteer did receive certain benefits, this alone was not controlling. The regulations had more authority.

The bottom line is the volunteer was unable to move forward with his case against the police department because he was not an employee for purposes of the anti-discrimination statutes. While this case was decided in California using California law, it has application in other states because the court relied on federal cases regarding who may be considered an employee in making its decision.

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