Employment Law Fact or Fiction?: It Doesn’t Matter Why You are Fired in an At-Will State

July 23, 2013

This article kicks off our “employment law fact or fiction” series in which we will discuss some of the most frequently asked questions that the attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert are asked by clients and potential clients. Few issues are black and white; most are shades of gray. Our hope is that the information here can help you gain a better understanding of Georgia employment law generally. Contact us today if you have a specific legal concern or think you have been wrongfully fired.

Employment Law Fact or Fiction? It Doesn’t Matter Why I Was Fired Because Georgia is an At-Will State

It is a fact that Georgia is an at-will state, as are most states. (In fact, at-will employment is the rule in every state except Montana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.) But it is fiction that it doesn’t matter why an employee is fired, even in an at-will state.

At-will employment generally means that an employer can lawfully terminate an employee for any reason (good or bad) or no reason at all, at any time and without any notice. But, there are exceptions to that rule, which means you have to take a closer look at the reasons behind a termination to see if any of these exceptions exist.

No matter where you live, and even if you live and work in an at-will state like Georgia, it is against the law to fire an employee because of discrimination or retaliation, which means you cannot be fired because:

  • You are (or are not) a particular race;
  • Your skin is (or is not) a particular color;
  • You do (or do not) maintain certain religious beliefs;
  • You come from (or do not come from) a particular country, region, or other place of national origin;
  • You are or are not a particular gender or sex;
  • You are older than 40 years old;
  • You are disabled or suffer from a medical condition but are otherwise qualified and reasonably able to perform your job duties, even if you require some type of accommodation to be able to do so; or
  • You opposed unlawful employment practices (such as discrimination or retaliation); for example, if you filed an internal grievance or complaint, a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or a lawsuit, or if you prepared a statement or testified in support of somebody who did.

Additional information can be found on our website or by visiting the EEOC’s website.

It is, of course, very unusual for a manager to tell you that you are being fired for one of these unlawful reasons. Companies, managers, and supervisors know that it is illegal to fire an employee for these reasons, so sometimes they will make up a reason to fire someone (known as a “pretext”) in order to hide the unlawful motive. If the real reason the worker was fired related to one of the factors described above, the employee may win a lawsuit and be re-hired and recover money to compensate them for the time they were unemployed, for the emotional distress and pain and suffering of having been the victim of discrimination, and for any costs or expenses they incurred because of being fired (including attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with bringing a lawsuit).

Even if you weren’t fired for reasons that are always wrongful (discrimination or retaliation), you may still have additional protections. Were you fired shortly after you reported that a co-worker or your company was violating the law? If so, you may be entitled to whistleblower protection. The extent of protection available to you will depend on the nature of the wrongdoing you reported, but both federal and Georgia laws forbid employers from terminating employees who report certain types of wrongdoing. Additionally, if your employer publishes employment policies (for example, contained in an employee handbook), then they are legally obligated to follow those policies when terminating an employee. This applies to policies governing reasons for firing someone, as well as to policies that establish procedures that will be followed in the event of a termination.

Finally, remember that unemployment benefits may be available to you even if your employer was within their legal rights to terminate you. You can learn more about collecting unemployment benefits by visiting the Georgia Department of Labor.

Do you think you were fired from your job for an unlawful reason? Do you need assistance in filing for unemployment benefits or appealing a denial of unemployment? Contact the law offices of Parks, Chesin & Walbert today by calling 404-873-8048 or filling our online contact form.

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