Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling raises alarms for whistleblowers

On behalf of Michael Fox

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that unpaid interns are not protected by whistleblower laws.

Ruling shows that tougher whistleblower protection laws may be needed

A recent ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is causing concern as it may discourage some potential whistleblowers from reporting employer misconduct and negligence. In Masri v. LIRC (July 22, 2014), the court ruled that a state law that protects whistleblowers in the healthcare industry does not cover unpaid interns. The ruling has led to calls for both state and federal lawmakers to adopt stronger whistleblower protections.

Intern let go after raising concerns

The case concerned a psychology graduate student who was working as an unpaid “Psychologist Intern” at a Milwaukee hospital. The intern filed a whistleblower complaint claiming that her supervising doctor had asked her to diagnose a patient as having borderline personality disorder in order to discredit a potential malpractice lawsuit by the patient. The intern claimed that her internship was terminated in retaliation for raising concerns about that request with an administrator. The hospital claimed that she was let go because of “performance” concerns.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled, however, that the state’s whistleblower protections for healthcare workers did not apply to the intern at all. The court held that those protections apply only to “employees” and that the intern did not qualify because she was not being compensated by the hospital. The court did leave open the possibility that other interns could be protected if they were being compensated in some way.

Stronger laws needed

The ruling has raised concerns with many. Two dissenting justices argued that the ruling puts patients in harm’s way by discouraging interns from coming forward with concerns.

Forbes magazine also referred to the case recently in an article on the need for better whistleblower protection laws across the country. The article argued that current laws focusing on compensating whistleblowers for lost income are insufficient, especially in cases involving unpaid interns. Instead, the article asserted, the laws should focus on punitive damages to punish retaliatory behavior and deter it in the future.

Whistleblower concerns

A whistleblower can often be integral to improving the safety and standards of not only a single employer, but an entire industry. But whistleblowers, in their quest to stand up against unscrupulous employers, often face unfair retaliatory measures, including harassment and job termination.

While many whistleblowers do have protections under the law, they will often want the help of qualified legal representation when trying to hold employers accountable. An experienced employment law attorney can provide the help that whistleblowers and other concerned employees need when fighting to make sure their rights as workers are protected.

Keywords: employer misconduct, whistleblower, employee rights, healthcare, unpaid interns, Wisconsin