The Georgia Supreme Court has answered two questions from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and found that an at-will employee can not sue in tort for wrongful discharge based on age discrimination. Reilly v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., et al., No. S99Q1590.
Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court.
Richard Reilly worked for Alcan Aluminum Ltd. ("Alcan") from 1974 through 1994 when Alcan terminated Reilly's employment. Reilly was an employee at-will. Reilly filed a complaint in the Northern District of Georgia, alleging that Alcan violated the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Georgia's age discrimination statute, OCGA § 34-1-2, when it terminated his employment. Reilly's claimed that his age impermissibly influenced Alcan's decision to terminate him and that this was also a breach of a state imposed public duty under OCGA§ 51-1-6 (if there is no specific cause of action, a person may recover if he is harmed by another who breached a legal duty,) and private duties under OCGA§ 51-1-8, (a person may have a cause of action if they are harmed by another who violated a private duty.)
The district court dismissed Reilly's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, ruling, among other things, that the Georgia statutes that Reilly relied upon did not create a cause of action for an alleged underlying violation of Federal or state age discrimination statutes. The district court based its dismissal on the ground that Reilly was an employee at-will. An at-will employee may be terminated for any reason and the employee may not recover in tort for wrongful discharge. The court reasoned that since § 51-1-6 and § 51-1-8 do not specifically create exceptions to the at-will employee doctrine, Reilly could not recover in tort under Georgia law for his discharge.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit certified the following two questions to the Supreme Court of Georgia: 1) Does OCGA § 51-1-6 or § 51-1-8 authorize a claim for breach of a legal duty when the breach is the alleged violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)? 2) Does OCGA § 51-1-6 or § 51-1-8 authorize a claim for breach of a legal duty when the breach is the alleged violation of the state age discrimination statute?
"We conclude that Reilly's status as an at-will employee is dispositive of the certified questions, and requires that we answer both questions in the negative, "wrote Justice Sears.
"Because the inability of an at-will employee to sue in tort for wrongful discharge is a fundamental statutory rule governing employer-employee relations in Georgia; because the General Assembly did not specifically provide a civil action as a remedy when enacting Georgia's age-discrimination act, although it has specified such remedies in other areas of employer-employee relations; and because the specific provisions of § 34-7-1 and § 34-1-2 must control over the more general tort provisions of § 51-1-6 and § 51-1-8, we conclude that the General Assembly did not intend for age-discrimination to provide the basis for a tort of wrongful discharge in this State. We therefore conclude that the general tort provisions of § 51-1-6 and § 51-1-8 cannot be read so as to create a civil action for age discrimination based upon a violation of either § 34-1-2 or the ADEA."
Certified questions answered in the negative. All of the Justices concurred.
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