Graduate Assistants May Be Considered Employees Under Certain Circumstances

On November 5, 2013, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio answered the question of whether Graduate assistants may be considered employees and may be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the case Al-Maqablh v. Univ. of Cincinnati College of Med.

In this case, the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant, the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, discriminated against him after the University terminated the Plaintiff from its graduate program because he did not fulfil all of his requirements. The Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that Defendant discriminated against him due to his race and national origin in violation of Title VII. However, the Defendant argues that federal law cannot apply to the Plaintiff because he is not an employee for purposes of Title VII.

In order to determine if an individual can be considered an employee under Title VII, Court must look to the economic realities of relationships between the individual and his/her employer because economic dependence increases an employer’s susceptibility to discriminate against his/her employees under Title VII. It is a case-by-case determination of employment status based on the totality of the circumstances of employment.

Under certain circumstances, graduates students have been considered “employees” for the purposes of Title VII. In Ivan v. Kent State University, the Court decided that the graduate student was an employee because the plaintiff agreed to “render services” to the University and the University withheld retirement contributions from the plaintiff’s graduate assistantship stipend, which the Court considered pay.

In this case there is no such contract because the Plaintiff failed to show that he was entitled to Title VII protections because he “received a paycheck from the University and rendered services to the University by performing extensive research through lab work.” Plaintiff submitted a paystub as evidence showing that taxes were withheld and that he contributed to the retirement system. The University argued that performing extensive research was a requirement of the Graduate Program. However, “Plaintiff received a stipend and/or scholarship after being accepted into the Program” and “has failed to show that this pay stub was based upon is employment with the University and not a portion of his stipend award.” Besides, the university also added that “all students in good academic standing in the Cancer and Cell Biology Graduate Program receive tuition scholarships … or graduate assistantship stipends”

Finally, the Court noted that ” the dominant purpose of Plaintiff’s relationship with the University was educational. Plaintiff’s complaint against the University asserts claims solely related to his academic activities as a graduate student.”

Therefore, the Court concluded that the University’s decision to dismiss the Plaintiff from the Graduate Program was an academic decision related to his failure to fulfil the necessary requirements to remain in the Graduate Program

If you are an employee and you think your rights under Title VII are being violated by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.