By Bruce Buchanan, Siskind Susser

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In United States v. Horno MSJ, Ltd., 11 OCAHO no. 1247 (2015), an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for the Office of Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) reduced an employer’s penalties for I-9 violations from about $30,500 to $14,600.

Horno Misión San José is a mom-and-pop bakery in San Antonio, Texas. After receiving a Notice of Inspection (NOI) in July 2012, Horno presented 26 Form I-9s to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In ICE’s Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF), it alleged 32 violations – failure to prepare/present I-9 forms for nine employees and failure to ensure 23 employees properly completed Section 1 or failed to properly complete Sections 2 or 3 of the I-9 forms.

In a prehearing statement, Horno presented five I-9 forms that had not been previously submitted, and it presented numerous “modified” versions of the original I-9 forms it had previously submitted. The “modifications” involved signing the I-9 forms with post-dated signatures.

Horno asserted that it did not have an obligation to provide I-9 forms for two employees because they quit before the orientation/hiring process was complete. However, the employees were paid and their paystubs showed each worked several days. Thus, Horno did have an obligation to complete and retain their I-9 forms and failed to do so.

Many of the incomplete I-9 forms reflected substantive errors, such as failure of an Horno representative to sign the Section 2 certification; failure to record any information in Lists A, B or C; and no status box checked in Section 1. However, the OCAHO ALJ did not find Horno engaged in bad faith based upon its high rate of violations. It is well-established under OCAHO case law that bad faith requires a showing of culpable conduct beyond merely a high rate of violations.

Horno was successful in arguing for a reduction of the proposed penalties. ICE sought a baseline penalty of $935 per violation based upon a violation rate of more than 90%. ICE aggravated the penalty by five percent for 13 employees’ I-9 forms because they were found to be unauthorized. Based upon the fact that Horno is a small business with an inability to pay the penalties, and the proposed penalties should have been closer to the midrange of penalties, the OCAHO ALJ reduced the penalties per violation to between $300 and $600 for a total fine of $14,600.

Although Horno was successful in substantially reducing its penalties, it could have received a much lower penalty if it had engaged in a self-audit before the NOI was issued.

A copy of the decision is available here.
Cite as United States v. Horno MSJ, Ltd., 11 OCAHO no. 1247 (2015)