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Employee Exhausted FEHA Administrative Remedies Despite Misnaming Employer
On September 8, 2017, Gloria Guzman filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) asserting various claims including discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against her employer – a car dealership – after it terminated her employment in May 2017. In her DFEH complaint, Guzman identified her employer as “Hooman Enterprises Inc. DBA Hooman Chevrolet.” Guzman also individually named her supervisors, including owner Hooman Nissani.
The DFEH subsequently issued Guzman a right to sue notice, and she initiated a lawsuit against “Hooman Enterprises Inc. DBA Hooman Chevrolet” on September 14, 2017, for violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). On January 23, 2018, the dealership filed an answer to Guzman’s complaint using the name “Hooman Chevrolet of Culver City.”
In October 2018, Guzman learned that the true legal name of the dealership was “NBA Automotive Inc. dba Hooman Chevrolet of Culver City.” At Guzman’s request, the court amended the complaint to substitute the legal name of the dealership. On April 25, 2019, Guzman filed an amended administrative complaint with the DFEH naming “NBA Automotive, Inc.” as the respondent. The DFEH accepted the amended complaint and deemed it “to have the same filing date of the original complaint.”
The matter proceeded to a jury trial, and the jury found in favor of Guzman on some of her claims and in favor of NBA Automotive on others. In total, the jury awarded Guzman $245,892 in damages. Following the trial, the dealership filed motions to overturn the verdict on the grounds that Guzman failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as required under the FEHA. The court denied the dealership’s motions, and it timely appealed.
The dealership argued that Guzman did not exhaust her remedies because her original administrative complaint identified “Hooman Enterprises, Inc.” rather than “NBA Automotive, Inc. dba Hooman Chevrolet of Culver City” as her employer. Under the FEHA at the time, an employee had one year from the date upon which the alleged unlawful practice occurred to file an administrative complaint. That complaint must state “the name and address of the person, employer, labor organization, or employment agency alleged to have committed the unlawful practice complained of……” The timely filing of an administrative complaint is a prerequisite to suing in court for damages.
On appeal, however, the court concluded Guzman exhausted her administrative remedies. The court noted that while Guzman did not state NBA Automotive’s full correct legal name, she nonetheless stated that the fictitious business name of her employer was “Hooman Chevrolet,” a name virtually identical to “Hooman Chevrolet of Culver City” (NBA Automotive’s actual fictitious business name). In addition, Guzman’s administrative complaint listed the address of Hooman Chevrolet in Culver City and named the owner. The court further reasoned that she provided a detailed description of her employer, stated the names of the accused individuals, and named the supervisors and managers employed by the dealership. Thus, any reasonable investigation would have revealed that NBA Automotive was Guzman’s employer, and the information in the complaint gave NBA sufficient notice.
Moreover, the court suggested that because the dealership did not disclose its true legal name until months into discovery, it knew Guzman intended to identify it in her administrative complaint and it tried to deprive Guzman of her right to pursue her claims.
The court concluded that to allow NBA Automotive to escape liability merely because Guzman identified it with a name that was nearly the same as her employer’s actual fictitious business name “would be contrary to the purposes of the FEHA.”
Guzman v. NBA Auto., Inc., 68 Cal. App. 5th 1109 (2021).
Courts tend to excuse employees who make mistakes on administrative complaints provided that the mistake does not prevent the DFEH from investigating and conciliating. There have been a number of similar decisions in California in recent months, such as Clark v. Superior Ct. of San Diego Cty., 62 Cal. App. 5th 289 (2021), which we reported on in the May 2021 Client Update.