As Georgia earns a reputation as a top state for doing business, there’s an underside for workers: Employer-friendly laws sometimes leave employees with fewer protections.
With limits on labor organizing and no state laws on the books regarding flexible shift scheduling, paid sick leave, paid family leave and other top employee concerns, Georgia workers don’t always have a robust slate of safeguards. Like almost every state in the U.S., Georgia is also an at-will employment state, meaning employers can fire employees at any time and for any reason—unless it’s an illegal reason.
There are some exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Employers cannot fire employees for any reason that violates the federal civil rights law—such as the employee’s race, sex, age, disability, or nationality. Public employers—including state agencies, counties, cities, and school districts—can’t fire an employee for refusing to break the law. And no employer can fire an employee for heeding a jury summons. Contracts can also change the terms of an employment relationship. Typically, though, employers in Georgia may let someone go for any reason, or for no reason at all. While this can be frustrating, or even deeply unfair, it’s not illegal.
Still, sometimes a termination just doesn’t sit right. Whether you have a clear record of retaliation or simply a suspicion that discrimination played a role in your firing, it can be hard to know how to proceed. So, what rights do employees have in an at-will employment state, and how do you prove wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination defined
Employers are given a lot of leeway in terms of acceptable conduct during a termination. They are, however, still subject to federal and state antidiscrimination laws, employment contracts and whistleblower protections.
Wrongful termination claims typically center on:
- Contractual promises: Contracts can redefine the at-will employment arrangement, stipulating that employees can only be fired for cause, like wrongdoing or an intentional breach of contract or company policy. Executives often protect themselves with such contracts, which may also set the terms of their severance. If you can argue that the firing broke the terms of your contract, you may have a wrongful termination suit.
- Employment Discrimination: Employers can’t fire workers because of a protected characteristic, like race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Before bringing a private suit, you have to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- Family and Medical Leave Act use: Employers can’t fire workers for using or planning to use Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protections. Such cases are also often associated with discrimination based on disability, genetic information or pregnancy.
- Retaliation: Employees can’t be fired for making an EEOC complaint, testifying in a coworker’s EEOC case, requesting accommodation, resisting sexual harassment, asking about possible pay discrimination or for using FMLA. Employers also can’t fire workers for filing a workers’ compensation claim. While discrimination cases can sometimes be challenging to prove, retaliation is often more clear-cut.
- Military service: Employees cannot be fired because they need time off for anything related to their obligations to U.S. miliary service, including answering National Guard obligations.
- Whistleblowing: Workers can’t be fired for reporting a workplace hazard to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or for raising the alarm about certain illegal activities or issues like youth employment.
- Violations of law: Employees of Georgia state agencies, counties, cities, school boards, or any other public employer can’t be fired for refusing to break the law or for reporting suspected violations of law.
Proving wrongful termination
Companies with proactive HR teams are typically quite mindful of potential employment suits. While at-will employment gives companies the right to terminate employees without cause, many are careful to show their work: documenting poor performance reviews, warnings or attempted interventions. If there’s no record supporting the employer’s decision, they are in a more vulnerable position.
Often, the first step in a wrongful termination lawsuit is challenging the employer’s story and demonstrating you were fired under false pretenses. Then, you must also show that the employer’s actual reason for termination violated the law. After a termination, you’ll want to:
1. Take notes about what was said during your meeting. While employers don’t have to give a reason for firing, some comments may be revealing.
2. Don’t agree to your severance package right away. Doing so will almost certainly close the door on a future employment lawsuit.
3. Contact an employment lawyer to discuss your options. Getting an expert opinion from someone with a strong understanding of your situation and labor laws will help determine if you have a potential lawsuit, or if you’d be better served negotiating for a stronger severance agreement.
4. Build up a record that challenges the company’s narrative regarding your firing. It’s helpful to save your performance reviews, make note of your company awards and flag emails from your supervisor celebrating your work. Since companies often freeze email access upon termination, maintaining these records on your own devices is a good practice.
5. Collect evidence of employer wrongdoing. Depending on your situation, this could include your employment contract, the employee handbook, records of discriminatory comments or actions taken by your employer, written requests for accommodation or reports of wrongdoing.
After evaluating your claim, your wrongful termination attorney will advise you on the best path forward. In employment law, it’s helpful to work with an attorney who understands Georgia businesses and knows the true, unspoken limits of possible compensation. If your goal is justice and future career growth, you’ll want an employment attorney who sets realistic expectations and provides hands-on representation.
Contact Radford Scott to discuss your options
While there are limits to worker protections in Georgia, you do have rights. At Radford & Keebaugh, we represent individuals—not companies. We understand the corporate budgeting that plays into how much businesses set aside for possible employment settlements, and we know how to make a compelling case for wrongful termination. If you’re ready to move past an illegal firing and move forward in your career, we’re here to provide the legal advice to get you there. Contact us today to discuss your situation.