Wrongful Termination: Retaliation & Whistleblowing in Georgia

If you were fired for exercising your workplace rights or reporting illegal workplace activity, you may have a case against your employer.

Were you fired from your job in Georgia because you complained about illegal behavior or asserted your legal rights? You may be able to sue for wrongful termination for retaliation or whistleblowing. Some Georgia and federal laws employment laws prohibit employers from firing employees for exercising their rights under those laws or for complaining that the laws were violated. Employees may also be protected for whistleblowing: reporting that the company has broken laws unrelated to workers’ rights (such as laws regulating product safety, government contracts, or shareholder fraud).

This article explains these legal protections, how to make a retaliation or whistleblowing claim, and more.

Wrongful Termination: Retaliation

Retaliation happens when an employer punishes an employee for exercising a workplace right or for complaining about violations of workplace rules. Many workplace laws, including discrimination laws, wage and hour laws, and health and safety laws are primarily enforced through employee complaints. Although state and federal government agencies are responsible for enforcing these laws, these agencies typically don’t conduct random workplace audits to find violations. Instead, they rely on employee complaints that an employer has broken the law. Even then, enforcement agencies almost never sue employers directly. The agency might investigate, impose a fine, or even make a finding that an employer has likely violated the law. However, the employee must usually bring a lawsuit to vindicate his or her rights.

Here are some of the most common laws that protect employees from retaliation:

  • Workplace harassment and discrimination.  You may not be fired for complaining—to your own HR department or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission— about workplace harassment or discrimination prohibited by federal or Georgia law. (See  Employment Discrimination in Georgia  for more on what traits are protected.) You also may not be fired for participating in an investigation of these issues or for exercising your rights under these laws (by, for example, requesting a reasonable accommodation for your disability or your religious practices).
  • Wage and hour laws.  Your employer may not fire you for complaining, whether internally or to the federal Department of Labor, that your employer’s failed to pay the minimum wage, failed to pay overtime, or illegally keeping a portion of your tips, for example. (Georgia does not have its own wage and hour laws, but employees are protected by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.)
  • Leave laws.  You can’t be fired for exercising your right to take family and medical leave, workers’ compensation leave, time off to vote or serve on a jury, or other legally protected time off work.
  • Health and safety laws.  You may not be fired for reporting, whether within your company or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health and safety violations at your workplace.

Wrongful Termination: Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing occurs when an employee reports illegal conduct at work that is not directly related to workplace rights. For example, if you report that your company is filing false tax returns or lying to government auditors, you are a whistleblower.

An employer may not fire an employee for blowing the whistle on certain types of misconduct. Some laws that prohibit certain types of unethical or illegal corporate behavior explicitly protect employee whistleblowers. For example, the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in 2002 to protect investors from corporate financial wrongdoing, includes whistleblower protections for employees who report financial irregularities and shareholder fraud.

A number of states have their own specific whistleblower protection laws or allow wrongful termination claims based on public policy when an employee is fired for reporting or refusing to participate in illegal activity. However, Georgia is not one of them. Georgia courts recognize only a small handful of exceptions to the state’s general rule that employees work at will (which means they may be fired at any time, with or without cause). Thus far, whistleblowers and employees fired for refusing to go along with illegal conduct have not fared well in Georgia state courts. You’ll need to consult with an experienced Georgia lawyer to find out whether your claim fits into an exception.

What to Do If You Were Fired for Whistleblowing or Retaliation

If your Georgia employer fired you for reporting illegal behavior or exercising your workplace rights, you may be able to sue your employer for wrongful termination. To find out, schedule a meeting with an employment lawyer.

Consult With a Lawyer

Retaliation and whistleblowing claims can be complicated. A variety of state and federal statutes prohibit employers from taking action against employees who assert their rights or complain about misconduct. An experienced lawyer can help you figure out which laws protect you and how best to proceed.

Prepare for your legal consultation by creating a timeline of events: the facts underlying your complaint or your report, when you complained or tried to exercise your rights, and what happened as a result. To prove retaliation or whistleblowing, you must show that you were fired because of your complaint or report. The key to these claims is timing: The less time between your complaint or attempt to exercise your rights and your employer’s negative action against you, the stronger your claim is. You’ll also need to show that the person who made the decision to fire you knew of your protected activities.

A lawyer will go through the facts of your case, explain the legal theories that might apply, and estimate how much your claims might be worth. A lawyer can also help you decide on the best strategy to vindicate your rights, whether that's trying to settle with your employer, filing a complaint with a government agency, or going to court.

Especially if you are out of work, you may worry about how you will pay for a lawyer. Depending on your claims, a lawyer may be willing to take your case on a contingency fee basis. In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer is paid only if you win, by taking a percentage of the money you receive. Also, some retaliation statutes include an attorneys' fees provision, requiring a losing employer to pay the winning employee’s legal fees.

Filing a Government Charge

For certain retaliation claims, you may have to file a complaint with a government agency before you go to court. For example, if you were fired for complaining about harassment or discrimination, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you want to sue for wrongful termination in violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protections, you must first file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Not all retaliation claims are subject to this rule, however. And, for some types of retaliation claims, you may—but are not required to—file an administrative charge before going to court. Your lawyer can help you figure out the requirements for your particular claim in your state.

Damages Available

How much you might collect if you win a retaliation or whistleblowing case depends on the law underlying your claims and how strong those claims are. For most wrongful termination cases, an employee can ask for:

  • wages and benefits you lost as a result of being wrongfully fired (called back pay)
  • reinstatement to your old job, or if that's not feasible, wages that you will lose going forward until you find a new job (called front pay)
  • any expenses you had to pay out of pocket as a result of being fired, such as the cost of searching for a new job, and
  • attorneys' fees and court costs.

In some cases, you might also be entitled to emotional distress damages, awarded to compensate you for the pain and suffering caused by your termination. Punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for particularly egregious misconduct, may also be available. And, in some whistleblower cases, you might be eligible for a fee or bounty for protecting the public from wrongdoing. (This might be a set amount per violation, a percentage of the total sanction against the employer, or some other amount determined by the statute or the court.) Your lawyer can explain what types of damages might be available in your case.

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