Can I fire an employee because she is related to a Board member?

I am acting as President of the company. The company merged with another and we now have 4 owners on the board. The board voted to have me terminate an employee based on her being the sister of the majority owner and feeling they could not “deal” the same with her because they feared retribution from the majority owner. The former employee now feels she was wrongfully terminated. She was a valuable employee, did her job and was never disciplined. She was to be awarded a rather nice bonus based on her performance last fiscal year. She wasn’t paid the bonus before termination even though she had been informed of the amount she was to be paid. To ease their conscience, the Board awarded a six-month salary severance with benefits. We did not put anything in writing but if I am deposed, I must tell exactly what happened. Does she have a case since I can’t find any provision in Georgia law which would apply? We are an “at will” state and I believe I can terminate for any reason not covered under EEOC as long as she doesn’t have a contract, no matter how bad the reason. Thank you!

Posted  12-15-2003

Rita Risser replies:

Lucky for you, you live in Georgia, a state where it is almost impossible for an employee to win a case for wrongful termination. Your last sentence is right, you can fire for no reason as long as you don’t violate the EEO laws.

However, even in Georgia you have to pay former employees what they are due. You do owe her the bonus. It’s too bad you gave her severance pay and didn’t have her sign a release for it. You could have paid her the bonus, plus $1 (one dollar) and had her sign a release and you wouldn’t be in this mess.

I suggest you pay her the bonus today, and start talking to lawyers so that you will have one ready when you need one. Even if you don’t get sued for this, you will need a lawyer before you fire a high-level person next time.

Good luck.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2016-11-18T16:00:34+00:00

About the Author:

Rita M. Risser Chai is the founder of Fair Measures. An attorney in California for 20 years and now an attorney in Hawaii, she authored the Prentice Hall book, Stay Out of Court! The Manager’s Guide to Preventing Employee Lawsuits. She developed most of the curriculum used by Fair Measures, created the firm’s first website praised in HR Magazine, and wrote numerous articles on employment law including one on best practice harassment prevention training published in the magazine of the American Society for Training and Development (now ATD). She taught Law and Human Resources at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for eight years, and has presented four times at the annual conventions of the Hawaii Society of Human Resource Management.