A California court recently turned the tables and sent out a warning signal to employers inclined to leave out an important element from letters of recommendation: the truth. While the full impact of the case is yet to be felt, it may signal to workers that they can expect less glowing letters of recommendation from former employers.

When Robert Gadams went looking for a job with the Livingston Union School District, he came armed with letters of recommendation from former employers--all of them painting him in no uncertain glowing terms.

One letter effused: " He is a 'perfectionist' and concentrates on 'getting the very best' from everyone. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Mr. Gadams for any position!"

" Considering his experience at the elementary, high school and adult education levels," wrote another former employer, " I would recommend him for almost any administrative position he wishes to pursue."

Still a third letter described Gadams as " an upbeat, enthusiastic administrator who relates well to the students." In fact, Gadams left all three of these positions after being investigated for sexual misconduct with female students.

Failing to read between the lines of the enthusiastic letters, Livingston hired Gadams as vice principal at once. Shortly after that, he was accused of sexually molesting a 13-year-old student in his new office.

The student sued, claiming that school authorities who failed to disclose their former employee's propensity for sexually molesting students were liable for the harm he caused her. The court agreed that the school districts had a duty not to misrepresent Gadam's suitability for the job as vice principal. It held that the student could base claims of negligent misrepresentation, fraud and negligence on the disingenuous letters (Randi W. v. Livingston Union School District, 41 Cal. App. 4th 400 (1996)).

But the final word on Gadam's future employability--and on potential liability for letters of recommendation--is still to come. While the California Supreme Court affirmed the findings of misrepresentation and fraud in January, the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated it may hear the case soon.

Copyright 1999 Nolo.com, Inc.