Federal law does not recognize a specific claim for “wrongful termination.” Most federal laws regarding termination allow employees to bring claims for discrimination, retaliation or harassment. Georgia also does not recognize a claim for “wrongful termination,” as Georgia is an “employment-at-will” state. This means that, in the absence of an enforceable employment contract or a violation of any anti-discrimination laws or federal statutes, employees in Georgia can be terminated at will. This “at-will” employment relationship is defined by statute. The rule is that an indefinite hiring may be terminated at will by either party for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. In fact, in Georgia, an employer’s policies and handbooks, and oral promises, do not create any exception to the “at will doctrine.” However, Georgia law does provide recourse for employees who are mistreated in their jobs or who are unfairly terminated in certain instances. For example, employees may be able to assert wrongful termination claims based on the violation of an employment contract, or a collective bargaining agreement. Some types of wrongful termination claims could give rise to state law tort claims in Georgia, such as claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress or tortious interference. The Atlanta lawyers at Moeller Barbaree can advise on all types of wrongful termination claims. The most common types of wrongful termination claims under federal and state law are discussed below.
Discrimination claims generally allege that an employee, applicant, or customer was treated unfavorably or less favorably because he or she is in a category (such as of a certain race or national origin) protected under federal or state equal employment opportunity statutes. Even if an employee is not in a protected category, discrimination based on someone’s marriage to or association with others in a protected category is also unlawful. Moeller Barbaree’s Atlanta employment lawyers have decades of experience representing clients in lawsuits and arbitrations brought under federal equal employment opportunity statutes, including: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, hostile work environment (harassment based on protected status and retaliation); the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions); Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, harassment and public accommodation); the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) (age discrimination, harassment, retaliation); the Equal Pay Act (EPA) (gender-based wage claims); Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) (use of genetic information); 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (race, retaliation); and various state and local anti-discrimination laws.
An employee seeking relief for discrimination initially needs to show she is in a protected category within the meaning of the applicable statute (or associated with someone who is), she suffered an adverse employment action, and others outside the protected category were treated differently or more favorably. Discrimination claims may challenge discriminatory denial of certain terms or conditions of employment (such as paying a lower wage to employees of a certain race) and a wide variety of adverse employment actions, including, for example, refusing to hire, firing, demoting, failing to promote, denying training, and disciplining an employee because of his or her protected category, such as religion or disability. If an employee or applicant can make this initial showing, the employer must show that it took an adverse action for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. The employee then has the ultimate burden of proving that the employer’s reason is not the real reason, and the employer was motivated by the employee’s race, sex, color, religion, national origin, pregnancy, disability, or other protected status. Moeller Barbaree’s attorneys have represented employees and employers in discrimination cases like these in Atlanta and many other parts of the country.
The statutes at issue prohibit various types discrimination and include strict requirements for bringing a timely claim and proving intentional discrimination and resulting damages – all factors with which Moeller Barbaree’s Atlanta lawyers are experienced. The following provides a brief overview of discrimination claims by type:
- Age discrimination – The ADEA prohibits discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. An employer’s policy or practice that applies to everyone may still be illegal under the ADEA if it has an adverse impact on applicants or employees ages 40 or older.
- Disability discrimination – It is unlawful for an employer to treat an applicant or employee who is a qualified individual with a disability unfavorably because she is disabled. The ADA also requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee or applicant with a disability requests one unless the employer can show the requested accommodation would be an undue hardship.
- Genetic information discrimination – Under GINA an employer is not permitted to use genetic information in making employment-related decisions. Genetic information includes an employee’s own genetic information and genetic information or diseases in the employee’s family medical history and also includes requests for genetic services or participation in clinical research.
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) discrimination – Some courts recognize that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, including transgender status, gender stereotyping, and/or because of sexual orientation. Other courts have been unwilling to extend Title VII’s protection to some of these categories. Some state and local discrimination laws include sexual orientation as a protected category, including the City of Atlanta’s non-discrimination ordinance.
- National origin discrimination – Title VII prohibits treating applicants or employees less favorably because they are from a particular country or region, because of their ethnicity or accent, and even because they may appear to be of a particular ethnic background.
- Pregnancy discrimination – A female applicant or employee may not be treated unfavorably because of her pregnancy, childbirth, or any medical condition related to her pregnancy or childbirth under the PDA. Certain pregnancy or childbirth-related conditions may also be protected disabilities under the ADA.
- Race or color discrimination – Prohibited race discrimination includes treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of her race or characteristics associated with race. Treating an applicant or employee differently because of her skin color or complexion is also unlawful.
- Religious discrimination – Title VII prohibits treating applicants or employees less favorably because of their sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. An employee cannot be segregated from certain positions because of his religion (including based on what he wears and/or his grooming practices), and an employer may have to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs unless the employer would be burdened or suffer undue hardship by doing so.
- Sex discrimination – Prohibited gender discrimination includes treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of his/her sex. Even an employer’s policy or practice that applies to all may be unlawful if it has a disparate impact on employment of people of a particular sex.
Georgia state law also provides for certain types of claims relating to wrongful termination in certain circumstances.
- Intentional Interference with Contract – Georgia law protects individuals from interference by third parties where the interference has been malicious, without any privilege or legal right, and results in the loss of a job and financial injury. When these claims succeed, it is usually because the person against whom the case is brought exceeded any authority he or she may have had in the workplace and acted maliciously out of some self-interest.
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress – Georgia law protects employees from intentional infliction of emotional distress. The proof necessary to succeed on such a claim, however, makes such claims difficult to prevail on. There must be proof that the employer is responsible for the conduct causing the distress and the conduct must have been extreme and outrageous. This means that the conduct must have been so insulting as to humiliate or scare someone to such an extreme as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. Courts in Georgia have recognized a few employment circumstances that rise to this level. For example, such cases may include instances where there is a pattern of continuing behavior, such as harassment or where there is a retaliatory motive for the behavior. A bad performance review, rude or discourteous conduct, a demotion or termination, offensive language, stress, or other unpleasant workplace conditions typically are not sufficient to prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In addition, an employee must show that he or she suffered severe emotional distress, which typically requires evidence of physical symptoms and/or medical evidence.
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