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Employee Could Pursue FEHA Case Despite Misnaming Employer In DFEH Complaint
In May 2018, Alicia Clark filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against her former employer, Arthroscopic & Laser Surgery Center of San Diego (ALSC), and her former supervisor. In the caption of her DFEH complaint, Clark listed ALSC as “Oasis Surgery Center LLC” and “Oasis Surgery Center, LP.”
In her complaint, Clark stated the company and her former supervisor had taken numerous “adverse actions” against her and that she had been harassed, and discriminated, and retaliated against in the workplace. Clark’s complaint also: identified other individuals who had discriminated against her; referred to several other managers and supervisors for whom she worked; named numerous witnesses with information related to her claims; and stated her job title and period of employment. Upon Clark’s request, the DFEH issued an immediate right-to-sue notice.
Subsequently, Clark initiated a civil lawsuit against “Oasis Surgery Center LLC;” “Oasis Surgery Center, LP;” and her former supervisor. Clark alleged numerous claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), including race, sex, and sexual orientation discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Clark attached a copy of her DFEH complaint and the DFEH’s right-to-sue-notice to her civil complaint. Clark later amended her initial civil complaint twice to name ALSC and an additional individual defendant.
ALSC then moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that Clark did not exhaust her administrative remedies, as required under the FEHA, because her DFEH complaint did not refer to ALSC by its legal name. The trial court agreed and entered judgment in ALSC’s favor. Shortly thereafter, Clark challenged the trial court’s decision by filing a petition for writ of mandate requesting that the Court of Appeal vacate the trial court’s order.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court was wrong. While employees must exhaust their administrative remedies, the DFEH regulations require it to “liberally construe” all complaints to effectuate the remedial purpose of the FEHA.
The court first indicated that there was no administrative DFEH process to exhaust because Clark requested and received an immediate right-to-sue notice. However, even assuming that Clark could be found to have failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, the court reasoned that she still met her burden. The court noted that Clark named “Oasis Surgery Center LLC” and “Oasis Surgery Center, LP” as respondents in her DFEH complaint – names that are very similar to ALSC’s actual legal name — “Oasis Surgery Center.” Further, her DFEH complaint named her managers, supervisors, coworkers, job title, and period of employment at ALSC. Thus, any administrative investigation into Clark’s DFEH complaint would have certainly identified ALSC as the employer.
Because any administrative investigation into Clark’s DFEH complaint would have revealed ALSC as the employer at issue, the court found her complaint served the purpose of the FEHA administrative exhaustion doctrine, i.e., to give the DFEH an opportunity to investigate and conciliate the claim. This conclusion was also consistent with state and federal decisions that hold that employees can exhaust their administrative remedies even without referring to their employers’ legal names. Accordingly, the court noted that a misdescription of an employer’s legal name on a DFEH complaint is not a “get-out-jail-free card” for the employer under the anti-discrimination laws.
For these reasons, the court vacated the trial court’s order entering judgment in ALSC’s favor.
Clark v. Superior Ct. of San Diego Cty. (2021) 62 Cal. App. 5th 289.
Courts tend to excuse employees who make mistakes on administrative complaints provided that the mistake does not prevent the DFEH from investigating and conciliating.