Georgia Termination Laws

July 7th 2024

Georgia’s termination laws are crafted to balance the rights of employees with the interests of employers. As an “at-will” employment state, Georgia generally allows employers to terminate employees for any reason, at any time, without prior notice. However, there are important exceptions designed to protect workers from unjust treatment. This guide provides comprehensive insights into Georgia’s termination laws, assisting employers in making informed decisions and ensuring employees are aware of their rights.

This Guide Covers

Legal Considerations for Termination in Georgia
“At-Will” Employment in Georgia
Lawful Termination in Georgia
Legal Protections During Termination in Georgia
Terminated Employee Benefits in Georgia
Layoffs in Georgia
Resignations in Georgia
Legal Cases Related to Wrongful Termination in Georgia

Legal Considerations for Termination in Georgia

When considering termination in Georgia, employers should be aware of several legal considerations:

  • Federal and State Laws: Employment termination in the US is regulated by a combination of federal and state regulations. Federal statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevent terminations based on discriminatory reasons. Additionally, state laws add extra layers of protection or specify different requirements. The Georgia Employment Security Law and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, are two such state laws affecting employment terminations in Georgia.
  • Company Policies: Companies often establish their own policies regarding termination to ensure there is a clear, standardized approach that all employees understand. These policies typically outline the grounds for termination, the process to be followed, and any disciplinary measures that precede termination. While these are not laws, employers must abide by any policies included in the company handbook. 
  • Documentation: Terminating an employee requires thorough and accurate documentation of their tenure. Documentation might include everything from performance evaluations and written warnings to correspondence and disciplinary meetings. Without these records, US employers have limited defense against potential claims that the termination was unjust or illegal.
  • Employment Contracts: Employment contracts may include details about how and when an employee can be fired. For employees working under fixed-term contracts, termination rules can be particularly stringent. These contracts specify the duration of employment, and terminating the contract prematurely without a valid reason could lead to breach of contract claims. 
  • Working Conditions: Hostile working conditions caused by the employer may be legally scrutinized. Employees who resign under these conditions can potentially file legal claims against their employer, and be eligible for unemployment benefits.
  • “At-Will” Employment: One of the fundamental principles of employment in most US states is the doctrine of “at-will” employment. This means that an employer or employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as the termination does not violate specific legal protections.

“At-Will” Employment in Georgia

What is “At-Will” Employment?

Georgia has an “at-will” doctrine that either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time without any reason. The “at-will” doctrine applies unless there is an employment contract that modifies these terms. While this flexibility allows employees to leave their job at any time without legal consequences, it also means they can be dismissed without cause.

What are the Exceptions to “At-Will” Employment in Georgia?

While the “at-will” employment doctrine allows for terminating employment relationships at any time for any reason, several key exceptions limit this flexibility in Georgia. These exceptions include:

  • Discrimination: In Georgia, employees are safeguarded against discrimination based on protected characteristics such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Georgia Equal Employment for Persons with Disabilities Code.
  • Public Policy Violations: Employees cannot be terminated for reasons that violate public policy. This includes being fired for refusing to engage in illegal activities, for performing a public duty (like jury service), or for exercising a legal right (like filing a workers’ compensation claim).
  • Retaliation: Employees are safeguarded from being terminated for participating in protected activities, including whistleblowing, reporting harassment or discrimination, or exercising their rights under relevant labor laws.
  • WARN Act: The  Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act may affect employers with a workforce of 100 or more. This law mandates that employers give advance notice before executing mass layoffs or shutting down plants.
  • Contractual Obligations: If there is an employment contract in place, employers must abide by the terms outlined in the contract regarding termination procedures and grounds for termination. Breach of contract claims may arise if the termination violates the terms of the agreement.
  • Jury Duty:  Serving on a jury is a civic obligation, and employees are protected under law when they need to take leave for this purpose. Employers must allow employees the time off to fulfill this duty and cannot terminate employment because of their absence due to jury service.
  • Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing: An employee may have a wrongful termination case against their employer if it can be proven that the dismissal was conducted in “bad faith.” The implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing mandates that both parties act in a manner that upholds the intended purpose of the contract, rather than undermining it. For instance, if an employer terminates an employee to avoid paying benefits or unjustly evaluates their work performance, it may constitute a breach of good faith.

Employment Under Contract in Georgia

In the United States, the concept of “at-will” employment is not universally applicable. Some employment arrangements are governed by formal contracts that supersede the “at-will” principle by dictating specific terms and conditions. In Georgia, employment under contract involves a formal agreement between the employer and the employee, outlining the terms of their relationship. This contract provides specific protections and obligations that differ from at-will employment. Both parties are bound by the terms and conditions of the agreement, and breach of contract claims may arise if the termination violates these terms.

While employers in Georgia are not required to enter into employment contracts, any established contract is legally binding. Employers have considerable flexibility in setting the terms and conditions of these contracts, as long as they comply with laws and public policy.

Though written contracts are generally recommended for clarity and enforceability, agreements can also be formed orally or through implied conduct. However, certain statutes, such as the Statute of Frauds, may require written documentation for contracts that exceed a specific duration, typically one year, to ensure enforceability.

Lawful Termination in Georgia

Legal Grounds for Termination in Georgia

Even if a termination is perceived as unfair, it does not automatically provide grounds for a legal claim. However, terminations can be legally challenged if they violate laws related to discrimination, military status, or retaliation. Some terminations may be restricted under other laws such as the Georgia Fair Dismissal Act, which establishes a framework for the termination of public education employees. Common reasons for dismissal include poor job performance, company downsizing, fraud, harassment and misconduct.

Read our comprehensive guide to firing employees in Georgia for further information.

How Do I File a Wrongful Termination Claim in Georgia?

In Georgia, employees can file for wrongful termination if they were fired for illegal reasons. To safeguard against unjust termination, it is important to be knowledgeable about their rights and the legal criteria for wrongful dismissal. Here are the ways employees can challenge wrongful termination:

  • Documentation: Employees should ask their employer to put the reasons for their termination in writing. It is also important to collect as much evidence about the termination as possible including emails, pay slips, texts and any other information which proves wrongful termination.
  • File a Complaint: Former employees who face retaliation or discrimination can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Complaints filed under the Georgia Fair Employment Practices Act must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. However, employees who are employed by federal agencies must file complaints within 45 days of the alleged discrimination. If a complaint is covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law, they can be filed within 300 days of alleged discrimination.
  • Agency investigation: Once a complaint has been filed with the EEOC, they will offer a mediation process and encourage the employee to resolve the situation with their employer. If a settlement cannot be reached, the complaint is returned to the EEOC for further investigation. If the EEOC finds in favor of the employee they will issue a “Letter of Determination” to the employee and employer to explain their findings. In some cases, they may take the employer to court or encourage the employer to take remedial action to resolve the complaint. If the EEOC does not find in favor of the complainant, they will close the case and issue a “Dismissal and Notice of Rights.”
  • Lawsuit: An employee can file their own lawsuit within 90 days of being notified of the EEOC decision. This process includes reviewing evidence, obtaining witness testimonies, and possibly proceeding to trial. If the court rules in the employee’s favor, potential remedies may include reinstatement, back pay, and compensation for emotional distress.

Legal Protections During Termination in Georgia

Georgia’s laws offer several safeguards for employees concerning termination, aiming to uphold fairness throughout the process. These include:

  • Final Paycheck: Federal wage and hour laws mandate that employers promptly provide terminated employees, including those who work remotely, with their final wages. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), this requirement applies to all employees, regardless of whether they were terminated, laid off, or resigned.
  • WARN Act: Employers with 100 or more employees may be subject to the WARN Act, which mandates advance notice of mass layoffs or plant closings.
  • Contracts: Employees who have employment contracts or are covered by collective bargaining agreements may benefit from additional protections that outline the terms and procedures for termination.
  • Non-Compete Agreements: The Georgia Restrictive Covenants Act allows employers to implement non-compete agreements with certain employees, provided these agreements are reasonable in terms of duration, geographic scope, and restricted activities. These agreements may only be enforced against specific categories of employees including, salespeople, managers with supervisory authority over two or more employees who can influence hiring or firing decisions, and key employees or professionals.

Terminated Employee Benefits in Georgia

Terminated employees in Georgia may be entitled to certain benefits and protections, depending on various factors such as employment contracts, company policies, and state regulations:

  • COBRA Health Insurance: According to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), employees have the option to extend their health insurance coverage for up to 18 months after termination (or up to 36 months under specific conditions). This provision applies to employers with a minimum of 20 employees and applies following qualifying events like job loss (excluding cases of gross misconduct) or reduced work hours.
  • Unemployment Compensation: This program provides temporary financial assistance to individuals who have been involuntarily unemployed. To qualify, individuals must have worked in Florida for at least 12 months and be actively searching for new employment.
  • Severance Pay: In Georgia, severance pay is not a legal requirement, employers are required to adhere to any provisions outlined in an employee handbook, layoff notice, or employment contract. Failure to adhere to these requirements may result in breach of contract.

Layoffs in Georgia

In Georgia, employers must follow specific regulations when conducting layoffs to ensure fairness and compliance with legal standards.

  • Transparent Selection: To ensure a fair and legally defensible layoff process, employers should utilize clear, objective criteria when selecting employees for termination. These criteria could encompass factors such as seniority, documented job performance evaluations, and the continued relevance of specific positions to the company’s ongoing operations. This approach helps mitigate potential claims of discrimination or bias.
  • Anti-Discrimination: Employers are prohibited from terminating employees based on specific protected characteristics, including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. 
  • Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act: Under this federal law, employers with 100 or more employees must give at least 60 days’ notice before carrying out mass layoffs or shutting down plants.
  • Employment Contracts: Employers must carefully review individual employment contracts to ensure compliance with any specific terms regarding severance, notice periods, and other employee rights.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): Unlike some states, Georgia doesn’t mandate immediate payment of final wages upon termination. Instead, employers must adhere to the FLSA requirement, which dictates issuing the final paycheck by the next regularly scheduled payday.
  • Documentation: Employers should keep a comprehensive record of the layoff process. This includes the criteria used to select employees and all communication with impacted individuals. Such documentation serves a dual purpose: ensuring compliance with regulations and potentially defending against future wrongful termination or discrimination claims.

Resignations in Georgia

Resignation involves voluntarily leaving one’s job or position, driven by various personal or professional factors, such as accepting a new job, relocating, retiring, or other life changes. However, resignations can also be involuntary. If an employee feels forced to resign due to hostile working conditions or employer pressure, the validity of their resignation might be legally contested. The nature of a resignation, whether voluntary or involuntary, affects the benefits an employee may be entitled to upon leaving.

Voluntary Resignations

When employees choose to resign in Georgia, several legal obligations apply to both the employees and their employers.

  • Unemployment Benefits: In Georgia, employees who resign are generally not eligible for unemployment benefits unless they can demonstrate that they left their job for a good cause related to the work, such as unsafe working conditions or significant changes in employment terms. Each case is assessed individually by the Georgia Department of Labor.
  • Employment Contracts: If an employment contract is in place, it may specify particular requirements for resignations, such as notice periods or the minimum duration of employment before an employee can resign.
  • Final Paychecks:  The regulations for final paychecks apply equally to resignations, firings, or layoffs. Without specific state laws governing final wage payments, employers must adhere to the federal FLSA mandate, which requires issuing the final paycheck on the next scheduled payday.
  • Notice period: Although it is standard practice to give a 2-week notice period before resigning in Georgia, it is not legally required unless specified in a company handbook or employment contract. Under the “at-will” employment doctrine, employees can leave their job without prior notice.

Involuntary Resignations

In Georgia, the concept of “constructive discharge” is recognized by law. This term refers to an involuntary resignation that occurs when an employee feels forced to quit due to the employer’s actions creating an intolerable work environment. Essentially, the employer’s behavior becomes so severe that the employee has no reasonable option left but to resign.

For an employee to successfully claim constructive discharge, they must establish specific elements. Crucially, they need to demonstrate that the employer knowingly allowed intolerable working conditions to persist. This evidence could include documentation of the problematic environment, communication attempts with the employer to address the issues, and ultimately, the lack of any corrective action taken by the employer. Additionally, the employee must show that the conditions were so severe that any reasonable person in their position would have felt compelled to resign. Essentially, they need to prove that resignation was the only viable option remaining.

Constructive discharge claims typically involve a pattern of negative employer actions, rather than a single isolated incident. However, a single, extremely severe incident can also qualify. Examples of common grounds for constructive discharge claims include persistent bullying or harassment, unsafe work conditions that endanger the employee’s well-being, unreasonable changes to work schedules, wage theft or disputes involving pay, and discriminatory behavior based on protected characteristics.

Legal Cases Related to Wrongful Termination in Georgia

1. Dayton Corp Pays $50,000 to Settle EEOC Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

In 2012, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Dayton Corp in Braselton, Georgia. The lawsuit was filed after a female employee with bipolar disorder was terminated after traces of the legally prescribed medication showed up in drug tests. The employee had been asked to submit to the test following an adverse reaction she had to the medication. She was terminated shortly after the test results came back. 

The lawsuit alleged that Dayton Corp  had discriminated against the employee due to stereotypical assumptions made about her medication.

Key lessons learned from this case:

  • The case serves as a reminder that employers must adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the viable recourse available through the legal system if those rights are infringed.
  • It underscores the importance of employers being sensitive and supportive towards employees with serious health conditions. Employers that fail to do so can be subject to legal consequences and reputational damage.

2. Georgia Government Agencies Settles Age Discrimination Suit for $500,00 After Allegedly Denying Promotion and Subsequently Firing Female Employee

The State of Georgia’s Department of Community Health and the McIntosh County Health Department paid $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for sex discrimination. The lawsuit alleged that Margie Washington, who had served as an office manager for over 25 years, was terminated due to her age.

Key lessons learned from this case:

  • This case underscores the importance of fair and impartial employment practices, with the EEOC stressing that hiring decisions should prioritize qualifications, not protected characteristics such as age.
  • It underscores the legal and financial ramifications of failing to comply with anti-discrimination laws.

3. Georgia Department of Public Health Pays $225,000 in Damages in Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

In 2017, Dr. Eric Walsh filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Public Health. Walsh, who also served as a Seventh Day Adventist preacher, had his employment terminated by the Department after being asked to provide recordings of his church sermons for review. The lawsuit claimed that the Georgia Department of Public Health violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religion from influencing employment decisions for both current employees and applicants.

Key lessons learned from this case:

  • Failure to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can result in significant legal and financial penalties for employers.
  • Terminating an employee on the basis of what is said in a religious sermon is a form of religious discrimination.

Learn more about Georgia Labor Laws through our detailed guide.

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