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CT court rules that employer may legally discriminate against volunteer on the basis of race

A Connecticut appeals court recently ruled that an ambulance company could legally discriminate against a volunteer on the basis of her race. The volunteer who brought the case, an African American woman named Sarah Puryear, alleged that her ambulance company discriminated against her because of her race.  Ms. Puryear alleged, among other things, that she “was subject to verbal harassment and an abusive working environment,” which included “inappropriate comments about the ‘ghetto’ and Africa.” The ambulance company argued that Connecticut’s discrimination law does not protect volunteers from discrimination because they are not employees. Thus, the ambulance company argued, even if it did discriminate against Puryear because of her race, it did not violate the law.

The court agreed with the ambulance company’s argument and adopted a legal test for determining whether a worker is an employee entitled to protections from discrimination. This legal test, called the “remuneration test,” requires a worker to show that she received some financial benefit from the employer for the work that she performed before she is entitled to protection from discrimination.

The court borrowed the remuneration test from federal case law that interprets Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Nina Pirrotti, President of the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association, disagreed with this decision. Ms. Pirrotti did not represent either party in the case. But she said that, if she had represented Ms. Puryear, she would have argued that Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law is more protective than federal law and, as such, the court should not have adopted the remuneration test from federal case law. She said that Connecticut courts have refused in the past to adopt standards from federal law when they interpret Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law, such as in Vollemans v. Town of Wallingford.