Table of contents
What is a registered agent, and what exactly do they do?
If someone hits your car and they don't pay you, then it's pretty easy to know who to sue. You sue the driver. But what if you need to sue a business? Can you go up to any employee and let them know that you're suing their employer? No, not quite. All companies are required by law in every state to designate what is known as a registered agent. Registered agents are the points of contact for legal matters. Every company has one, and they're easy to find once you know the company's legal name---they have to be.
You can also serve the officers of a company. These are people like the Owner, CEO / President, CFO / Treasurer, and the secretary (an official keeper of minutes for their board meetings). However, you need to determine who these people are and find where they will be at a given point to serve them effectively.
If you're having trouble finding the legal name of a business or finding information about their officers, consider retaining a professional process of service company or consulting an attorney.
Okay, so how do I find a company's registered agent?
In California, there's a website for all businesses located or doing business in the state. You can access it here. It lets you search for a company's registered agent by entering all or part of their name, entity number, and by type.
If you know the name of a manager or employee related to the issue you're having, you'll want to hold on to that for your demand letter. It won't help you find any information on California's 'Business Search' tool unless the entity name is directly related to the name of the employee or manager in question.
If you don't know the name of a company, or at least not their legal name, then it will be difficult for you to contact the right registered agent with any confidence. Given how important service of process is to any small claims case, it pays to be exact.
How do I find a company's legal name?
Companies often have legal names that are directly related to how they market themselves, and the name you know is always the best place to start. However, what you see at first glance isn't guaranteed to be the right answer even if it seems appropriate.
Consider the case of a franchised restaurant. If you intended to sue the local franchise but looked up the name of the national chain, then you'd likely end up suing the wrong company.
Furthermore, you'll sometimes come across a company that has a legal name completely unrelated to whatever it is that they actually do or how they market themselves. A local restaurant, for instance, might be marketed as 'Neighborhood Pizza' but registered with the state as 'Owner's Name, LLC.'
Here are some best practices find a company's legal name:
Ask them directly. Although it may be awkward to ask for the legal name of the entity employing them, an employee or manager may simply tell you. Be sure to specify that you're asking about the company's legal name. If you're asking a non-management employee, ask what company name is on their paycheck.
Look up their website and scroll down to the bottom. Companies will often display their legal names by their copyright. As a reminder, though, just because you are on a website with a similar name/marketing materials does not necessarily mean that the listed company is the company you intend to sue.
Check the Term of Use section to see if they reference a particular legal entity name. Even if they do, it may no longer be the legal structure that they use.
Check the About Us section to see if they reference a particular legal entity name. Even if they do, it may no longer be the legal structure that they use.
Ask their landlord. Landlords generally want to lease their properties, and in order to do so, they usually market them. They'll often make either their contact information or the contact information of a real estate agent who knows them readily available if you look up the address.
Look up their liquor license, if you intend on filing suit against a restaurant that serves alcohol. In California, you can use this free tool. They allow you to immediately see the primary owner of the restaurant (often a corporation) and what they're doing business as.
Look up tax records for a specific property with the local county clerk.
If you can't find a business's legal name and don't know what to do, consider hiring a professional process server or retaining an attorney.