Georgia Supreme Court Holds That Punitive Damages Are Potentially Available in Abusive Litigation Lawsuit Stemming from Employee’s Firing

As the saying goes, “There are two sides to a story.” Generally speaking, this is true. However, in an Atlanta wrongful termination case, there may be only one truth, and “the other side of the story” may simply be the opposing party’s attempt to avoid liability.

While the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit has the burden of proving certain things in order to recover money damages or other relief, the opposing party also has certain responsibilities – including defending the case in a manner consistent with the applicable laws, rules, and regulations. When a defendant refuses to play by the rules, causing his or her opponent to waste time, money, and resources in pursuing his or her legal remedies, there can be serious repercussions, including having to pay the other litigant’s attorney fees and costs and, sometimes, punitive damages.

Facts of the Case

In a wrongful termination case recently considered on appeal by the Supreme Court of Georgia, the plaintiff was a man who was terminated from his job in 2012. He filed suit against his former employer, alleging that the employer had breached a severance agreement and other provisions in his contract of employment. While the litigation was pending, the employer’s business was bought by another company, who was then substituted as a corporate successor-in-interest. The trial court granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiff, holding that there was no basis for the employer withholding payment to him. The plaintiff was later awarded attorney fees and litigation expenses, with the trial court holding the employer and its successor jointly and severally liable.

At some point thereafter, the plaintiff filed another lawsuit against the employer, the successor, and others, raising a claim of abusive litigation and requesting damages for “injury to his peace, happiness, and feelings,” punitive damages, and attorney fees; the basis for this lawsuit was that the defendants had, among other things, asserted baseless defenses during the prior litigation. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, holding that his claims failed on numerous grounds. The court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, after which the state supreme court granted the plaintiff’s petition for certiorari in order to determine whether OCGA ยง 51-7-83 (a) authorized the recovery of punitive damages.

Decision of the Court

The supreme court reversed the intermediate court of appeals decision and remanded the case for further proceedings, ruling that punitive damages are generally recoverable in an abusive litigation lawsuit. The court noted, however, that punitive damages are not recoverable in situations in which a plaintiff’s claim is solely related to damages to his or her “peace, happiness, or feelings.” According to the court, the text of the statute indicated that punitive damages were to be included as a potential remedy; thus, the statute did not alter the common law, which generally allows punitive damages in abusive litigation lawsuit.

The court went on to acknowledge the defendants’ argument regarding alleged deficiencies in the plaintiff’s complaint, but found that this issue had not yet been considered by the lower tribunals because of their conclusion that punitive damages are not allowed in a statutory abusive litigation case. On remand, the lower court was to decide whether the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint were such that punitive damages were appropriate.

Schedule a Consultation with an Atlanta Employment Law Attorney

The law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert handles many types of wrongful termination cases. For an appointment to discuss a potential lawsuit against your current or former employer, call us at 877-986-5529 to schedule a consultation with a member of our legal team.