Employer Name Error Doesn’t End Plaintiff’s ADEA Action

Employment Law
 

An employee’s error with regard to the name of his employer when he filed a charge of discrimination was not fatal to his age discrimination claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit held.

Humberto Trujillo worked as the manager of multiple Ashley Furniture HomeStores in the Chicago area from 2007 through 2016. The stores were owned and operated by Rockledge Furniture LLC, a Wisconsin limited liability company. According to Rockledge’s registration with the Illinois Secretary of State, it operates in Illinois under the assumed names of “Ashley Furniture HomeStore – Rockledge,” “Ashley Furniture Outlet” and “Ashley Sleep.”

Trujillo claimed that in late 2015, the employer began an initiative focused on hiring and promoting younger employees. A younger sales manager was assigned to report to Trujillo, but the worker failed to perform her basic duties and missed work without an excuse, Trujillo said.

When he complained, however, the younger manager was promoted. The employer then conducted an unscheduled “store audit” and Trujillo was fired.

Trujillo filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He alleged that he was fired because of his age and in retaliation for his complaints about the younger sales manager.

The charge identified his employer as “Ashley Furniture HomeStore.” He did not list “Rockledge Furniture LLC,” but he did provide the Illinois address and telephone number of the Rockledge-operated store he had been managing.

Using a new, automated system, the EEOC forward Trujillo’s charge to a Texas business that operated Ashley Furniture stores in the state. When the company responded that Trujillo was not an employee, the EEOC—which never contacted anyone at the address or phone number Trujillo provided—reached out to his lawyer.

Trujillo’s lawyer explained that the employer was Rockledge and sent the agency a paystub which listed Rockledge’s full name and corporate address. The EEOC still failed to serve the charge on Rockledge, closed its file and issued Trujillo a right-to-sue letter.

When Trujillo filed his complaint asserting claims pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and state law, Rockledge moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The district court granted the motion. Although the dismissal was without prejudice, it was too late for Trujillo to file a new charge to exhaust his administrative remedies.

He appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed. The plaintiff’s “minor error” in stating the name of the employer did not require dismissal of his claim, the court said.

“Here the mistake was that one word was missing from the employer’s assumed business name,” the panel wrote. “Several cases show how courts overlook similar or less trivial errors in naming employers in charges.”

Trujillo’s charge provided nearly the correct trade name, as well as the correct address and telephone number of the store he managed, the court said.

“The slight difference between Rockledge’s business name and the name Trujillo used in his EEOC charge should not have prevented the EEOC from reaching the proper employer and pursuing possible conciliation,” the panel said.

The purpose of the requirement to file a charge is to provide the EEOC with sufficient information to notify an employer that it has been charged with discrimination and provide the agency with the opportunity to investigate. In its amicus brief, the EEOC told the court that Trujillo’s charge gave the agency sufficient information to process it properly and give appropriate notice to Rockledge.

“[W]e agree,” the panel wrote. “Penalizing the charging party for the EEOC’s mistake in processing that sufficient information would frustrate the purpose of the ADEA and its design allowing non-lawyers to pursue claims before the EEOC.”

The court added that even if Trujillo’s original charge were deemed not to have named his employer with sufficient accuracy, the additional information that his lawyer provided to the EEOC—his paystub and the name “Rockledge”—should remove any lingering doubts.

“This information should also be considered in deciding whether Trujillo adequately exhausted administrative remedies before the EEOC,” the panel said.

To read the opinion in Trujillo v. Rockledge Furniture LLC, click here.

Why it matters: When determining whether a claimant has satisfied the charge-filing requirements, the focus should be on the information the claimant provided to the EEOC, not on what the EEOC actually did with the information, the panel said. The plaintiff provided the correct address and phone number for his employer and made a “minor error” with regard to the employer’s name, a problem rectified by his attorney. This was sufficient to save the plaintiff’s case from dismissal for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, the Seventh Circuit concluded.