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Are Graduate Assistants Employees or Students?

The status of a graduate assistant must be analyzed based on the 'economic realities' of each individual.

November 21, 2013
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Related Topics: Compensation Design, Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Compensation Design and Communication, Staffing and the Law, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Job Design and Analysis, Wages and Hours
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In Al-Maqablh v. University of Cincinnati College of Medicine (11/5/13), an Ohio federal court answered the question of whether graduate assistants are employees entitled to the protections of Title VII. As with most legal question, the answer depends.

The case concerned the race and national origin claims of a grad student placed on academic probation and ultimately dismissed from the University. Al-Maqablh sought Title VII’s protections as an employee because he “received a paycheck from the University and rendered services to the University by performing extensive research through lab work.” The court, however, disagreed:

Plaintiff received a stipend and/or scholarship after being accepted into the Program. Plaintiff has failed to show that this pay stub was based upon is employment with the University and not a portion of his stipend award. Furthermore, the fact that Plaintiff performed extensive research, as required under the Program, does not make him an employee under Title VII.

Instead, the court looked to the “economic realities” of the relationship between Al-Maqablh and the University to determine whether he was an employee or a student:

Plaintiff participated in the Graduate Program as a student engaging in “courses, seminars and laboratory research during the academic year.” … More importantly, 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…. [T]he undisputed evidence establishes that the University’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff from the Graduate Program was an academic decision unrelated to Plaintiff’s alleged employment with the University. As such, the undersigned finds that Plaintiff should not be considered an employee under Title VII....

Thus, in this case, the graduate assistant was a student, not an employee. The court made the point, however, that this rule is not universal; the status of a graduate assistant must be analyzed based on the “economic realities” of each individual. If the University had paid Al-Maqablh for his services (as opposed to providing him an academic scholarship), or if the University had dismissed him for an employment reason, as opposed to an academic, reasons, this case likely would have turned out differently.

If you are an educational institution using the services of graduate assistants, do not make this mistake of reading this decision as providing carte blanche to discriminate against graduate assistants (indeed, Title IX would instruct you differently). Instead, understand that these rules are fact-specific, and seek legal counsel to guide your actions accordingly.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.

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