What Former Employee?

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SAN FRANCISCO: In courts across the nation, employers are being sued for sexual harassment, job discrimination, work related injuries and numerous other allegations. While many of these suits are clearly worthy of a hearing, a ruling made today in the Supreme Court of California may cause some in-house counselors to shake their heads in disbelief. Overturning a lower court's decision, the state's highest judicial body ruled that an employer who writes an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for an employee can be sued for failing to mention serious episodes of misconduct -- such as child molestation -- which could endanger others on the new job. The decision stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a 13-year-old girl in California who claimed she was molested by her school's vice principal in his office in 1992. After winning a guilty plea from the vice principal, the girl's attorney went after two of his former employers, claiming they failed to point out in their reference letters that he had been forced to resign from both districts because of allegations of sexual misconduct with students. The suit was eventually thrown out of court, but was unanimously reinstated today after several years of legal action. The girl's lawyer, Scott Righthand, maintained today's ruling, "goes a long way to protect children in this state." But Robert Rosati, a lawyer for the districts, said the ruling hurts employees and employers alike. "The court has basically told employers, 'Don't give references. Even if you have no facts to support any negative references, if the person whom you refer later commits a tort you stand a chance of getting sued.'" C. Michael Carrigan, an attorney representing another district added, "I would imagine a lot of (employers), if they couldn't say anything good about the employee without having to say something bad, they'd probably opt for saying nothing." And for employers facing lawsuits at every turn, this belief will doubtless become widespread. At least in California, not only can employers be sued for failing to mention episodes of misconduct, but they also face the possibility of being sued by ex-employees who claim candor in reference letters prevented them from landing new jobs. For employers, the only safe route seems to be: donít answer your mail.