The court said Asma Masri, a doctoral student dismissed from the Medical College of Wisconsin after making an ethics complaint, did not qualify as an employee because she was not paid and did not receive any benefits even though she worked 40 hours a week and had complete access to patient records.
Justice David Prosser referred to the state's Labor and Industry Review Commission's earlier decision in Masri's case.
The commission's "interpretation is reasonable, and there is no more reasonable interpretation," Prosser wrote in the Supreme Court's opinion. "Because Masri received no compensation or tangible benefits, she was not an employee of MCW and was therefore not entitled to anti-retaliation protection" under the law.
Masri was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008, when she began a psychology internship at the Medical College of Wisconsin, which placed her in the transplant surgery unit at Froedtert Hospital. Masri said her internship abruptly ended after she told a college administrator that she had been ordered to create a "borderline personality" diagnosis to discredit a patient who might file a malpractice lawsuit.
The college claimed it ended the internship because of performance concerns.
Dr. John Raymond, the college's president and CEO, issued a brief statement saying he was pleased with the court's decision.
"Ms. Masri was a UWM student on rotation at MCW, and was neither an employee nor a medical intern; therefore worker protection statutes do not apply in this case," Raymond said. "There were and are methods, both anonymous and otherwise, for both employees and non-employees to report issues that may concern them."
A spokeswoman for the college said she did not have any information Masri's allegations or how they might have been addressed.
Masri's attorney, Lawrence Albrecht, emphasized that her internship ended just days after she made her report and said she "totally rejects MCW's claim that it ended the relationship because of performance concerns."
He said modern workplaces involve a variety of employment arrangements, something he felt was better reflected in a dissent by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who aruged that denying Masri and other unpaid workers whistleblower protection could hurt patients.
"The result is that these health care workers who are in a position to witness and report problems with patient care may now be silent, resulting in lower quality patient care," Bradley wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Albrecht added, "The public would clearly understand when they go to a hospital that the person holding their most private medical records with full computer access to their full medical history would be considered an employee of the hospital."
Prosser left open the possibility of unpaid workers qualifying as employees if they received other tangible benefits, but he said Masri did not. Any benefits she received, such as parking and office space, were related to her duties and had no independent value, he said.
"Interns often provide valuable services to their supervising entities and receive vital training in return," he concluded. But, he added, if lawmakers wanted interns to receive the same protection as paid workers, they should change the law.