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Trujillo v. Rockledge Furniture LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 7, 2019

Humberto Trujillo, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Rockledge Furniture LLC, doing business as Ashley Furniture Homestore, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued May 16, 2019

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:17-CV-5343 - Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Hamilton, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.


         This appeal is about business names and when an employee's error in naming his employer is or is not fatal to an employment discrimination claim. Plaintiff Humberto Trujillo worked as a manager of an Ashley Furniture HomeStore near Chicago. He was fired and then filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age discrimination and retaliation. In the charge, he listed the name of the Illinois store where he had worked- Ashley Furniture HomeStore-as well as the address and telephone number of the store. The correct legal name of Trujillo's employer, however, was Rockledge Furniture LLC, a business that operates several Ashley Furniture HomeStores and that was registered to do business in Illinois under the name "Ashley Furniture HomeStore - Rockledge." The district court dismissed Trujillo's claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies because he did not name his employer sufficiently and because the EEOC never managed to notify the correct employer of Trujillo's charge.

         We reverse based on two premises. First, Trujillo named his employer sufficiently in his original EEOC charge, and when his lawyer later sent his pay stub with Rockledge's name and address, he removed any doubt about the employer's identity. Second, the EEOC's error in processing his charge does not bar Trujillo from suing his employer.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         We review de novo, without deference to the district court, the grant of a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge, 804 F.3d 826, 829 (7th Cir. 2015). We accept all well-pleaded facts as true and draw all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor. Flannery v. Recording Indus. Ass'n of America, 354 F.3d 632, 637 (7th Cir. 2004).

         From June 2007 through March 2016, Trujillo worked as a store manager of several Ashley Furniture HomeStores in the Chicago area. These stores were owned and operated by Rockledge Furniture LLC. Rockledge is a Wisconsin limited liability company associated with Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc., a Wisconsin corporation. According to Rock-ledge'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." Each store where Trujillo worked held itself out to the public as an "Ashley Furniture HomeStore."

         We can summarize briefly the substance of the case, but without vouching for Trujillo's allegations. In late 2015, according to Trujillo, Rockledge launched an initiative focused on hiring and promoting younger employees. Rockledge assigned a younger sales manager to report to Trujillo. Trujillo alleged that the young manager failed to perform her basic duties and repeatedly missed work without an excuse. He complained to human resources. Instead of disciplining the young manager, however, Rockledge promoted her. Rockledge then conducted an unscheduled "store audit," which Trujillo alleges was used as a pretext to justify his firing. Trujillo alleges that he was actually fired because of his age (he was about 50 years old when he was fired) and in retaliation for his complaints about the young sales manager.

         On May 13, 2016, Trujillo filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The charge identified his employer as "Ashley Furniture HomeStore." He did not list "Rockledge Furniture LLC," but he provided the Illinois address and telephone number of the Rockledge-operated store he had been managing. The EEOC never contacted anyone at that address or phone number. Instead, the EEOC used a new, automated system that forwarded the charge to a Texas business named Hill Country Holdings, LLC, which operated Ashley Furniture stores in Texas. Hill Country replied to the EEOC that Trujillo was not its employee.

         In April 2017, the EEOC told Trujillo's then-lawyer that "Ashley Furniture" (meaning Hill Country) had responded that it had stores only in Texas and had never employed Trujillo. In response, Trujillo's lawyer explained that his employer was Rockledge, an "Ashley Furniture Franchise/' and that Trujillo's EEOC charge listed the location where he had worked. The lawyer also sent the EEOC one of Trujillo's pay stubs, which listed Rockledge's full name and corporate address. One mystery of this case is that the EEOC still failed to serve the charge on Rockledge. The EEOC closed its file in April 2017 and issued Trujillo a right-to-sue letter.

         In July 2017, Trujillo filed his complaint in the district court asserting claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. Rockledge moved to dismiss. Instead of opposing the motion to dismiss, Trujillo filed an amended complaint adding as plaintiffs three other older Rockledge managers. Rockledge moved to dismiss again, arguing that Trujillo had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The district court granted the motion to dismiss without prejudice, finding that Trujillo had failed to exhaust because he did not name Rockledge as a party in his EEOC charge. The court gave Trujillo an opportunity to replead and allege facts sufficient to show that Rockledge knew or should have known of the EEOC charge, thereby satisfying the "Eggleston exception" to the administrative exhaustion requirement. See Eggleston v. Chicago Journeymen Plumbers' Local Union No. 130, 657 F.2d 890, 905-06 (7th Cir. 1981) (allowing discrimination suit against party who was not named at all in EEOC charge, but who received actual notice of charge and was given opportunity to participate in conciliation).

         Trujillo filed his second amended complaint, and Rock-ledge again moved to dismiss based on the same exhaustion argument. The district court dismissed Trujillo's claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies because his EEOC charge did not list "Rockledge Furniture LLC" and because the complaint did ...

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