Unemployment benefits and domestic violence victims: an unlikely duo

Pay attention, Georgia employers. In an unexpected turn of events, the Georgia Court of Appeals in Scott vs. Butler, et. al. (June 4, 2014) recently decided that Georgia employees who are also domestic violence victims may receive unemployment benefits if the employee quits because the attacker contacts or seeks the employee at work.

This is true even if the employer did not create or contribute to the dangers affecting the employee.

Employees in Georgia are generally denied unemployment compensation if the employee, without good cause, voluntarily quits or leaves employment. Georgia law does allow unemployment benefits when the former employee becomes unemployed through no fault of their own.

This new basis for unemployment benefits started with a claim filed by Latresha Scott against Variety Stores, Inc. Ms. Scott had a violent history with her ex-boyfriend, who had been arrested on multiple occasions for physically attacking Ms. Scott (including kicking her in the stomach during her pregnancy) and even attempting to strangle Ms. Scott with a belt shortly after she delivered their younger child.

Despite myriad restraining orders, the ex-boyfriend found Ms. Scott’s place of employment with Variety Stores, Inc. and began contacting her there. Ms. Scott ultimately resigned from Variety Stores, Inc. because she did not feel safe coming to work, and filed for unemployment compensation.

Scott’s employer opposed the claim, citing the fact that Scott had resigned voluntarily from her position at no fault of the employer.  A hearing officer found in favor of the employer and denied Scott’s application, ruling that, while Scott “may have considered the work environment to have been difficult,” she had “the burden to do whatever a reasonable person would do to retain her employment.”  Hence, since her resignation was based upon “personal reasons” and not a good, work-connected cause, she was not entitled to unemployment compensation.  The Board affirmed the ruling, and the Superior Court of Fulton County subsequently affirmed the Board’s decision.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, reversed the Board’s finding on the basis that, even though the employer did not create or contribute to the dangers Scott faced, to deny someone benefits in such circumstances as Scott’s would effectively be to force her to work in a dangerous environment and would place her and others at risk of violence due to circumstances that beyond their control.

The bottom line for employers is this: if a domestic violence victim quits because her or his attacker seeks out the victim at work, the employer will most likely be on the hook for unemployment benefits.

If you are ever in doubt as to whether or not you are liable for unemployment benefits when one of your employees leaves, take the time to speak with an employment lawyer at Briskin, Cross & Sanford to see what both your rights and your obligations may be under this ever changing area of law.

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