State Law Torts

State Laws and Employment At Will

Georgia is considered an “employment-at-will” State. This means that, in the absence of an enforceable contract of employment for a specific period of time and assuming there is no 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.

Employment at will is so ingrained in the law of Georgia that even employment policies and handbooks, oral promises, public policy and notions of good faith and fairness offer no exceptions to the rule. There are, however, certain torts or wrongs that are actionable in Georgia and that may provide recourse for employees who are mistreated in their jobs or who are terminated in an unfair manner. A few of those are described below.

Fraud

Fraud most often comes up when an employee feels that a job has been offered that is not what it was represented to be or an offer is withdrawn after an employee has spent time and considerable resources in order to accept the job; for instance, an employee may have sold a home or incurred moving expenses before an offer is withdrawn. Unfortunately, if there is no signed contract covering those expenses or providing for a specific term of employment, the “employment at will” rule will prevent any lawsuit for fraud. However, if the representation that there was a job available was false to begin with, there may be a claim for fraud despite the rule.

Intentional Interference with Contract

Georgia law protects employment arrangements 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. The most common type of claim is one against a co-worker or supervisor for causing a termination. However, these claims typically lose since a co-worker or supervisor is often not a stranger or third-party to the employment relationship. When these claims succeed, it is usually because the person sued overstepped any authority he or she may have had in the workplace and acted maliciously out of some self-interest.

Defamation

There are two types of defamation: libel, which involves false and malicious statements that are expressed in print, writing, pictures or signs and cause injury to reputation; and slander, which is oral or verbal defamation. In the employment setting, such claims are difficult because any defamation demands publication to a third-party. If allegedly defamatory statements are merely published internally within the company where an employee works, they are almost always subject to something called the “intra-corporate privilege” meaning that the statements have not technically been published to a third-party. It is as if the company was merely speaking to itself. Suffice it to say, these are complex claims with many defenses and a consultation with an attorney is strongly recommended.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Georgia law protects employees from intentional infliction of emotional distress; however, these claims are very difficult to bring. There must be proof that the employer is responsible (not just the perpetrator) and the conduct must have been extreme and outrageous. This means that the conduct must have been so terrifying or insulting as naturally to humiliate, embarrass, or frighten someone and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. There are few employment circumstances that rise to this level. Some situations that have, for instance, include cases where there is a pattern of continuing behavior (especially if related to sexual harassment); cases in which there is a retaliatory motive for the behavior; or cases where there is an awareness of an employee’s particular susceptibility to emotional distress. A bad employment review, mild bullying in the work place, rude or offensive language, stressful work conditions or terminations will not typically be sufficient to prove a case. In addition, an employee must show severe emotional distress, which may require a showing of physical symptoms and/or medical evidence.

Negligence

There are a number of different types of negligence that can be asserted against an employer where the harm is foreseeable; although, it must always be shown that the employer is responsible, either because it directed and approved of the conduct or ratified an employee’s actions. Some claims include negligent hiring and retention (where the employer knows or in the course of ordinary care should have known an employee was not suited for the particular job). Georgia law requires that employers exercise ordinary care in the selection of employees and not retain them after knowledge of their incompetency. Some other similar type claims include negligent training and negligent supervision.

Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy can include a number of different types of claims, including: intrusion upon an employee’s seclusion or solitude, or into his or her private affairs; public disclosure of embarrassing private facts; publicity that places the employee in a false light in the public eye; and appropriation, for the employer’s advantage, of an employee’s name or likeness. These cases are made more difficult by employment policies that inform employees of a lack of privacy and the fact that internal disclosure of private facts may not be considered sufficient publication especially where made to persons with a need to know. Two common claims for invasion of privacy that have regularly been rejected by the courts are claims based on an employer’s calls to an employee while at home or off duty and claims based on an employee being escorted from the company property following termination.

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment in Georgia is the unlawful detention of a person that deprives him or her of their personal liberty. The restraint must be against the employee’s will and be accomplished by either force or fear and may occur by actual physical restraint or by words or threats that produce a reasonable fear that physical force will be used against the employee. However, if an employee agrees to the restraint, for instance by remaining in a room in order to listen to or respond to discipline or to avoid termination, then there is no imprisonment.

Some Other Georgia Employment Facts Worth Knowing

In some cases, it may be important to know what Georgia laws do not protect (although there may be protection under federal law). For instance, in Georgia, there is no law that provides for certain payments such as vacation or paid time off at the time of separation. There are no legal requirements for paid meal or rest breaks although there is an allowance for reasonable unpaid breaks for an employee to express breast milk. For most workers (not including minors or certain persons in cotton or wool manufacturing plants), there are no maximum hours for work. Although Georgia has some limited laws against age and disability discrimination, Georgia does not provide employees working in private industry with protection from race, gender or sexual orientation discrimination. Federal law, however, does provide for this type of protection.

This is just an overview of other laws that might or might not protect employees in an at-will State like Georgia. If you have questions or concerns over the possible violation of any such laws, we can help guide you and, if necessary, represent you in Court. To further discuss your situation, you can call us toll free at 1-855-774-3675, send us an e-mail, or fill out a consultation request form and we will contact you as soon as possible.