Unpaid intern may be an employee under Pennsylvania Human Relations Act

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has concluded that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) may include an unpaid intern as a covered employee under the act. Such an intern may therefore sue her “employer” for sexual harassment and other discrimination claims.

Recent case: As part of her training to become a medical assistant, Nilsa, who is bilingual, had to intern with a medical provider for 180 hours. She got an internship with a counseling center.

An independent contractor who worked for the center had an office near Nilsa’s desk. Because he spoke only Spanish, he asked her to help translate his treatment notes from Spanish to English.

She agreed, and he asked her to meet with him in his office. There, he locked the door, told her that he wanted her to have his baby and attempted to kiss her. Nilsa escaped and reported the incident to police and her supervisors.

The counseling center investigated and concluded that her complaint lacked merit.

However, the center hired Nilsa once she graduated. She was soon fired for alleged poor performance.

Nilsa sued, alleging sexual harassment under the PHRA. A jury awarded her $50,000.

The clinic appealed, arguing the law did not protect her because she wasn’t an employee.

The court disagreed. It noted that the PHRA doesn’t define employee, but that because the clinic effectively controlled how Nilsa performed her duties, she was an employee. (Lopez v. Citywide, et al., No. 1843 EDA 2015, Superior Court, 2016)