If you get promised a job in writing and then it does not materialize, what happens?

Q"I was a temporary employee at a college in Virginia. The college director offered me a permanent position as an associate dean in August 2004 to start Sept. 15, after I finished my master's degree. I had also interviewed with the dean at the school, and he said to just bring in proof of my master's. They sent me an offer on the school's letterhead, and I accepted in writing.

"In the meantime, the college director was let go, and five days later I was told by the dean they were also cutting out all temporary workers. When I returned to start my job on Sept. 15, I was told the offer wasn't valid. Do I have a valid case for breach of contract?"

ABill Bethune, a Washington lawyer who mostly represents corporate interests, said this worker is on firm ground in thinking that "a contract has been breached," even though "the damages could be scant."

"I don't know what the college meant by saying the offer is not valid," Bethune said. "The director was acting within the scope of his authority, and the dean confirmed that the offer was valid."

Bethune said economic circumstances can and do change, but the offer in this case apparently was not made contingent on funding being available.

He said that even if the person had started work, she could have been laid off shortly thereafter in an economic crunch since all employment in Virginia is considered at-will. That means an employer can dismiss a worker for any reason as long as it's not a discriminatory reason, just as a worker can quit for any reason.

Bethune suggested that the would-be associate dean "go back with some appropriate level of anger and knock on the dean's door and find out why this has occurred and try to work things out informally." But Bethune said if that cannot be done, the worker ought to check with an employment attorney to figure out if a breach-of-contract suit is worth pursuing.

-- Kenneth Bredemeier

E-mail your workplace questions to Kenneth Bredemeier at bredemeier@washpost.com. Discuss workplace issues with him Wednesday at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.