Former Employer Not Liable For Giving A Negative Reference

A South Jersey physician’s assistant recently sued his former employer over a bad job reference. The man accused the employer, a hospital, of defaming him.

In 1999, the physician’s assistant received a poor performance review.  He was fired in early 2000.  Years later, the man applied to receive his physician’s assistant credentials from another hospital. That hospital asked his former employer for a reference. The former employer did not make a recommendation for or against the man’s application for credentials. It did, however, inform the new hospital that he had been fired for deficiencies in his performance.

When his application to the second hospital was not immediately accepted, the man got nervous and withdrew his name from consideration.  He then hired a company that specializes in posing as a prospective employer, to find out what kind of reference he was getting from his former job. The man’s former employer gave this fake company the same negative information that it gave the hospital. The physician’s assistant then sued his old hospital.

The lower court judge who heard the case dismissed it before it even reached trial. The employee appealed. The appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The court noted that telling the truth is a full defense to defamation. Since the man did not prove that the statement in question was false, the hospital could not be held liable.

Yet again, we see that the truth shall set you free. Or, at least, it sometimes protects your pocketbook.