Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Georgia, employees work at will, which 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.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
- for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk of death or serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
- for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
- for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (discussed below)
- because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus, or
- because you filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits for COVID-19.
(Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
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.
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.
Under federal law, it is illegal for employers to fire employees for exercising their rights under federal wage and hour laws, including hourly employees' right to receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. In Georgia, most employees are entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
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:
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.