Lawsuit in Calif. Job-Reference Case Revived

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The California Supreme Court ruled last week that three school districts can be held liable for giving positive job references for an administrator who they knew had been the subject of alleged sexual improprieties involving female students.

The court unanimously revived a lawsuit by the family of a former middle school student who allegedly was molested by the administrator while he was an assistant principal in a fourth district.

The three former employers are potentially liable for negligent misrepresentation and fraud, the court held, because they provided highly positive job recommendations for the administrator, Robert Gadams, without mentioning the allegations of sexual misconduct.

"The writer of a letter of recommendation owes to prospective employers and third persons a duty not to misrepresent the facts in describing the qualifications and character of a former employee, if making these misrepresentations would present a substantial, foreseeable risk of physical injury," the court said in its Jan. 27 opinion in Randi W. v. Muroc Joint Unified School District.

'Relates Well to Students'

The case involves a lawsuit filed on behalf of a former student at Livingston (Calif.) Middle School who alleges that she was molested by Mr. Gadams in 1992. The woman, now 18, is identified in court papers as Randi W.

The family's lawsuit targets not only Mr. Gadams and the Livingston school district, but also the administrator's three previous employers.

The suit states that an official of the Mendota, Calif., district, where Mr. Gadams worked from 1985 to 1988, concluded in a job recommendation that "I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Mr. Gadams for any position," despite his knowledge that Mr. Gadams had improper contacts with female junior high school students.

An official of the Golden Plains district, where Mr. Gadams worked next, said in a job referral that he "would recommend him for almost any administrative position he wishes to pursue," despite allegations that Mr. Gadams had led a "panty raid" and made sexual overtures to female students in his school.

An official of the Muroc school district described Mr. Gadams as "an upbeat, enthusiastic administrator who relates well to the students." The official recommended Mr. Gadams for any assistant principal's job "without reservation," despite allegations that he was forced to resign in 1991 because of charges of "sexual touching" of female students.

The job recommendations were all provided to the placement office of Fresno Pacific College, where Mr. Gadams received his teaching credentials. The Livingston district relied on the recommendations when it hired Mr. Gadams for a vice principal's job, according to the suit.

The Livingston district has also sued Mr. Gadams' three previous employers. Mr. Gadams left the Livingston district in the wake of the latest allegations.

A state trial court judge dismissed the Mendota, Golden Plains, and Muroc districts from the lawsuit, but a state appeals court and the state supreme court later agreed that the districts could be held liable.

The high court said the job recommendations from the Mendota, Golden Plains, and Muroc districts amounted to "misleading half-truths." The districts' letters "were false and misleading in light of defendants' alleged knowledge of charges of Gadams' repeated sexual improprieties," the court said.

The court said the districts could have avoided liability by either writing a full disclosure of all relevant facts about Mr. Gadams or a "no comment" letter verifying basic employment dates and details.

"Liability may not be imposed for mere nondisclosure or other failure to act," the court said.

Dilemmas for Employers

Legal experts say more school districts and other employers are either declining to provide references or issuing "no comment" letters on problem employees.

"Lots of [prospective] employers are finding themselves frustrated," said Bradley Saxton, an associate law professor at the University of Wyoming, who has studied the issue.

"They call and are told, 'I'm sorry, we don't give references,'" Mr. Saxton said.

Scott Righthand, the lawyer for the family suing the districts, said the high court's message is that employers should tell the whole story about a problem employee.

"It's time for school districts to stop passing along child molesters to another school district so they can get this person out of their hair," Mr. Righthand said.

"If you provide an honest response to prospective employers, not only have you done the right thing, you are going to be protected," he said.

However, Michael Carrigan, a lawyer for the Muroc district, said the ruling places employers in a tough position because they must consider whether to pass along rumors or allegations of wrongdoing if they are giving detailed recommendations.

The result, he fears, is that even more employers will confirm only basic information such as job title and length of employment.

If employers are not giving detailed references, then every candidate looks similar, Mr. Carrigan said. "And if everybody looks alike, then bad people are going to get hired."

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