Volunteers Do Not Necessarily Become Employees When Benefits Are Provided

Frank Estrada was a reserve police officer for the City of Los Angeles. The City considers reserves to be volunteers, not employees. However, the City does provide workers’ compensation benefits to reserves.

For example, in 1995, while on duty, Estrada was involved in a traffic collision and sustained leg and back injuries. In 1996, while on duty, Estrada again was involved in a traffic collision and injured his right shoulder. In both instances, he obtained workers’ compensation benefits and continued to receive benefits, as his injuries were not fully resolved.

After an investigation by the FDA into Estrada’s nutritional supplement company, Body Basics, Inc., the City terminated Estrada in 2005. Estrada responded with a lawsuit, alleging that his termination violated California’s non-discrimination laws, and that he was fired in retaliation for filing workers’ compensation claims.

The California Court of Appeals dismissed Estrada’s lawsuit. The Court ruled that “an aggrieved plaintiff must have the status of an employee; an uncompensated volunteer is not an employee. The State’s discrimination law confers employee status on those individuals who have been appointed, who are hired under express or implied contract, or who serve as apprentices.

“Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, courts turn to the 13 factors articulated by the Supreme Court to determine whether an employment relationship exists. However, to satisfy the hiring prong, a purported employee must establish the existence of remuneration, in some form, in exchange for work.

“Pursuant to the language of the L.A. Administrative Code, Estrada was appointed to his volunteer position by the Chief of Police. Estrada was not appointed to an employee position. The civil service rules define an employee as ‘a person occupying a position in the classified civil service.’ Estrada admittedly was not appointed to a position in the classified civil service. Accordingly, Estrada was not an employee of the City.

“The fact the City provides Police Reserve Officers with workers’ compensation coverage does not compel a different conclusion; workers’ compensation benefits do not amount to remuneration giving rise to employee status. Clearly, the City has made a policy decision to extend such benefits to volunteer reserve officers, who serve gratuitously and put themselves in harm’s way to protect the community. However, the consequence of this policy decision by the City is not to convert these uncompensated volunteers into municipal employees for all purposes. The fact the City provides volunteer reserve officers with workers’ compensation benefits if they sustain industrial injuries does not change the fact they serve without remuneration. The City’s workers’ compensation benefits, similar to the recurring $50 reimbursement for a volunteer’s out of pocket expenses, simply serve to make a volunteer whole in the event the volunteer were to sustain injury while performing his or her duties.”

Estrada v. City of Los Angeles, 159 Cal.Rptr.3d 843 (Cal. App. 2013).