In a decision dated June 7, 2012, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (“OCAHO”) handed down a substantial fine against a small business employer for failure to properly complete Form I-9.
In particular, Administrative Law Judge Ellen K. Thomas ruled that failure to complete Form I-9 Section 2 by reporting only List B on the I-9 constitutes a “substantive violation” of federal employment verification laws, even if photocopies of List A and/or C documents are kept in employee files. This finding is opposed to a ruling that such a failure to complete Section 2 would constitute a mere “technical violation” were lesser fines would have been imposed.
In U.S. v. Four Seasons Earthworks, the 22-person employer was served with a Notice of Inspection and Administrative Subpoena by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). Upon review of I-9s relating to 19 employees – including several family members of the family-owned business – ICE found that the employer entered information in Form I-9 Section 2 corresponding only to a List B document. Under the I-9 regulations and instructions, an employer must verify employment eligibility by inspecting a List A document (substantiating both identity and employment authorization, such as a U.S. passport) or by inspecting a List B (substantiating identity, such as a state driver’s license) and List C document (substantiating employment authorization, such as a social security card). The employer must then use those documents to fill out the form properly.
The employer argued that because it made photocopies of List A or List B and List C documents, it nonetheless complied with the regulations and any such violations should be considered to be merely technical. However, the OCAHO ruled that the regulations specifically provide that photocopying does not relieve the employer from the requirement to fully complete Section 2.
This case should serve as a warning to other employers to ensure that I-9s are properly completed and that Human Resources personnel are properly trained. It is important to note that both ICE and the employer were in agreement that each worker for the company was authorized to accept employment. Nonetheless, because the employer failed to properly complete Section 2, the violations were ruled to be substantive. Under the law, employers can face penalties ranging from $110 to $1,100 for each Form I-9 substantive violation.
In determining the level of the penalties, the ALJ found that there were mitigating factors that warranted a reduction in penalties including the following: 1) the employer was a small business; 2) it suffered an economic downturn and a related business went bankrupt; 3) it acted in good faith; and 4) its violations were not as serious as the total failure to complete an I-9 or obtain an employee signature. As such, the ALJ imposed a fine of $500 for each violation. Indeed, the employer could be considered to be fortunate to an extent considering that it could have faced a fine of $20,900 had these factors not been in its favor. Other companies in this situation might not have been so “lucky.” The case is important as it shows that even small employers with a legal workforce can face substantial fines simply because their I-9s are not properly completed.
Contact your Klasko Law attorney for guidance regarding federally mandated Form I-9 for employers and other issues relating to employment verification and worksite compliance.