A Domestic violence victim who quit her jobs because her attacker sought her out at work may receive unemployment benefits, the Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled.
A ruling June 4 by a panel of three judges said the issue was new for Georgia’s courts. In his opinion for the panel, Judge John Ellington said the decision was consistent with prior unemployment benefits decisions addressing analogous scenarios, as well as the state’s overall policy in favor of paying unemployment benefits when people are unemployed through no fault of their own.
The winning argument was made by Atlanta Legal Aid Society lawyer Lindsey Siegel. “I think this removes just one more barrier to victims staying safe,” said Siegel. “I think this is really a critical one, and I’m hoping that other survivors will then have this option available to them to leave their job if it’s too unsafe for them to stay.”
The case was brought by Latresha Scott. As recounted in a brief filed by Scott’s lawyers at Legal Aid, her ex-boyfriend, Nicholas Thomas, was extremely violent toward her, kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant. During an incident that ended their relationship in 2011, Thomas tried to kill Scott with a belt just after she had given birth to their younger child, according to the brief.
During their relationship, the police arrested Thomas several times for violence against Scott, leading to criminal convictions, according to Scott’s brief. Scott also obtained multiple restraining orders against Thomas.
Scott took a new job as a cashier at a discount store owned by Variety Stores Inc. in February 2012. She was training to be an assistant manager. She kept the location of her new job and her residence a secret from Thomas, according to Siegel.
But Thomas found her, showing up at her work in the summer of 2012, even though, according to Siegel, he was violating a court order that made it a felony to contact her in any way. He appeared at the doorstep of her home about a week later. She says she believed that he followed her home from her job to discover where she lived.
Scott fled to a domestic violence shelter, and her boss agreed to give her a two-week leave from her job, according to her brief. While she was living in the shelter, her stepfather killed her mother, then himself, and Thomas came to the funeral and confronted her.
As her agreed-upon leave was coming to a close, Scott told her employer she didn’t feel safe coming back to work yet. She resigned and applied for unemployment benefits.
In Georgia, unemployment benefits are paid out of an account funded by an employer’s contributions, meaning each employer funds benefits for its former employees. Georgia law generally bars an employee who quits a job from receiving unemployment benefits, but not in all cases. A Georgia statute, O.C.G.A. § 34-8-194(1) says a person who quits her job may receive unemployment benefits unless she resigned “voluntarily without good cause in connection with the individual’s most recent work.”
The employer opposed Scott’s benefits claim, contending she had voluntarily quit for personal reasons that were unrelated to her employment and thus she didn’t qualify for benefits. A state Department of Labor claims examiner agreed with the employer and denied Scott’s request for benefits. An administrative hearing officer affirmed that decision, as did the department’s Board of Review.
Scott filed a petition for judicial review with the Fulton County Superior Court, which Judge Thomas Campbell Jr. denied. Scott appealed to the state Court of Appeals, where a panel of Ellington, Chief Judge Herbert Phipps and Judge Carla Wong McMillian reversed. Without writing a separate opinion, McMillian indicated she did not agree with all that Ellington said in his opinion, meaning the decision is of limited precedential value.
Ellington said Georgia’s appellate courts hadn’t addressed the precise scenario presented by Scott’s case but had addressed analogous situations. He noted that the Court of Appeals had said verbal or physical abuse inflicted by an employer or other supervisory personnel could constitute good cause for quitting one’s job such that unemployment benefits may be available. In another case, he noted, the court said that if an employee quit his job because his work environment caused or aggravated his asthma, he could receive unemployment benefits.
“After considering this court’s analogous precedent, and after liberally construing O.C.G.A. § 34-8-194 (1) in favor of Scott and in compliance with Georgia’s public policy favoring payment of unemployment benefits to persons who are unemployed through no fault of their own, we conclude that Scott has met her burden of demonstrating that she is entitled to unemployment benefits,” wrote Ellington. “Even though the employer did not create or contribute to the dangers at issue, to deny Scott benefits under the circumstances presented would, in effect, require her to work in a dangerous environment wherein she and numerous others would be unnecessarily exposed to the actual threat of violence due to circumstances that are entirely beyond their control. This would be an outcome that is unjust, inequitable, and inconsistent with the expressed purpose of the act.”
The state’s attorney general’s office filed a brief against Scott’s position after being directed by the Court of Appeals to file something, but the AG’s office has said the Department of Labor is merely a “nominal party” named for the purpose of filing the administrative record, with the employer the real party. The employer did not file a brief in the appeal. A spokeswoman for AG Sam Olens said Thursday the office had no comment on the decision.
Citing a 2009 Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund article, Ellington’s opinion said at least 33 other states and the District of Columbia extend unemployment benefits to victims of domestic violence. A 2005 report by the pro-employee National Employment Law Project said states that have offered unemployment insurance to victims of domestic violence have found the costs to be “insignificant.” In Minnesota, for example, over a nearly 12-month period there were 31 cases covered by its domestic violence law with a total cost of $77,000, compared with $851 million in total benefits paid during that time.
Siegel, Scott’s lawyer, said Friday her client is in school now and doing well. Siegel said Scott took a risk leaving her job, thinking she probably would not receive unemployment benefits.
“She thought it was the right thing that people in her situation get unemployment benefits,” said Siegel. “Of course, she wanted it for herself, but she saw the larger significance of what a positive decision might mean.”