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Minnesota Supreme Court rules in favor of employment protections for unpaid interns, students

The case stemmed from a St. Mary's University doctoral student's experience at a practicum.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decided Wednesday that compensation is not required for an employee to be covered under the state’s civil rights laws.

The Supreme Court sided with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in the case Meagan Abel v. Abbott Northwestern Hospital and St. Mary’s University Minnesota.

The case stems from Abel’s practicum (a practical experience during a course of study) at Allina's Abbott Northwestern Hospital, which was part of her doctoral program at St. Mary’s University.

Minnesota Attorney General represented the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in the case.

According to court documents, Abel began the practicum in September 2015. During her practicum, Abel’s supervisor allegedly engaged in inappropriate behavior, including “highly sexualized group and individual sessions.”

The supervisor would allegedly touch students inappropriately and make sexual remarks. He also allegedly called Abel “the brown one.”

Abel reported the claims to the university and the hospital, but neither acted. She brought civil lawsuits against both Allina and St. Mary’s in March 2018.

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A lower court dismissed claims for race and sex-based discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The court found Abel’s claims were past the statute of limitations and that a lack of compensation barred her claim.

The Supreme Court reversed those decisions, opening up Abel’s case for further proceedings.

“For the first time in Minnesota history, the highest court in the state ruled Minnesota's civil rights law protects unpaid interns,” said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero in a statement. “The Court correctly recognized that all Minnesota workers, including interns, are entitled to the protections of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”

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