Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. 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 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 whether you have a legal claim for wrongful termination, speak to an experienced Georgia employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic, such as race or religion. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination, and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.
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 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. If you are fired for complaining of discrimination, participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (whether you or another employee made the complaint), or testifying in court, you have a retaliation claim against your former employer.
If you believe you were fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, you must file a charge of discrimination with a government agency before you may proceed with a lawsuit. In Georgia, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination; 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. If, for example, you signed a written employment agreement stating that you could be fired only for good cause, you do not work at will. If your employer fired you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract. The same is true if, for example, your employer promised during your job interview that you would not be fired for the first year of your employment, but fired you sooner.
Fraud, Emotional Distress, or Other Tort Claims
Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to bring a “tort” (personal injury) lawsuit for wrongful termination. For example, some states allow fired employees to sue for fraud, violation of public policy, infliction of emotional distress, or other injuries. Which types of claims (if any) an employee can bring depends on decisions by state court judges, which means that the rules are always developing and changing. To find out whether you might have a valid tort claim in your particular situation, you’ll need to talk to an experienced employment lawyer.
Georgia Employment Protections
Under federal and Georgia law, an employer cannot fire employees for exercising workplace rights that are guaranteed by law. Some of these protections are outlined below; to learn more about Georgia employment law, contact Georgia’s Department of Labor.
Wage and Hour Issues
The minimum wage in Georgia is $5.15 per hour. However, employees who are covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (most are) are entitled to the higher minimum wage of $7.25.
Georgia has no overtime laws, although employees who work more than 40 hours in a week may be eligible for overtime pay under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Georgia does not require employers to provide lunch or rest breaks. However, you are entitled to be paid if you have to do any work during a break (for example, if you have to cover the phones while you eat lunch). And, generally, you are entitled to be paid for any short breaks (five to 20 minutes) your employer provides; this time is considered part of your workday.
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 unpaid leave to vote, unless they have two hours off at the beginning or end of their shift 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, less any funds 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). This law gives eligible employees who work for larger employers the right to take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for their own 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 must be reinstated to the same position they previously held once their FMLA 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 any claims you may have against your former employer. A lawyer can explain your options and help you protect your rights, whether you decide to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or take your former employer to court.