Georgia Wrongful Termination Laws
Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Georgia, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Georgia employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your Georgia employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of employment rights in Georgia, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Georgia employment lawyer. To learn more about Georgia employment law, contact Georgia’s Department of Labor.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only certain employers must comply with these laws. For most types of discrimination, the law apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the prohibition against age discrimination applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and the ban against citizenship status discrimination applies to employers with only four or more employees.
Georgia law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (for wage discrimination claims only), disability, and age (40 to 70 only). Georgia employers with at least 15 employees must comply with most of these laws; employees with at least ten employees must comply with the law prohibiting sex-based wage discrimination.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.
Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. In Georgia, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administers federal and state discrimination claims. The EEOC has a district office in Atlanta; you can find out where to file a complaint at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
Breach of Contract
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In Georgia, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook has a disciplinary procedure that must be followed before an employee is terminated, that may create an implied contract that you won't be fired unless certain steps are taken. If you have an employment contract and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
Wage and Hour Issues
In Georgia, employees are entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. While Georgia doesn't have its own overtime laws, under federal law, employees are entitled to receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Georgia does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. However, employers who choose to offer breaks of 20 minutes of less must pay their employees for that time. Under federal law, it is illegal for employers to fire employees for exercising their rights under federal wage and hour laws.
Time Off Work
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Georgia, these rights include:
- Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Under Georgia law, employees who are members of the Georgia National Guard or the federal Armed Forces are entitled to unlimited unpaid leave if called to active state or federal service. These employees are also entitled to take up to six months of leave in any four-year period to attend annual training or service school. Employees must be reinstated following their leave.
- Voting leave. Employees are entitled to up to two hours of leave to vote, unless they have two hours off before or after their shifts while polls are open.
- Jury duty. According to the Georgia Attorney General, employers must pay employees their usual wages while they are serving on a duty, minus any jury fees the employee receives from the court. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. Georgia does not have its own family medical leave law, but Georgia employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. For more information on the FMLA, see the articles at Nolo's FMLA page.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Georgia employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.