By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

In a calendar year with few decisions, Office of Chief Administration Hearing Officer (OCAHO) issued its last one in U.S. v. Integrity Concrete/American Concrete, 13 OCAHO no. 1307 (2017). In this decision, OCAHO substantially reduced the penalties assessed against Integrity Concrete, Inc. and American Concrete, Inc., which essentially acted as joint employers. This decision only involves the amount of the penalties as Respondents agreed to the liability.

Factual Scenario for Integity

Integrity, located in San Diego, CA, was served with a Notice of Inspection (NOI) in January 2015. Thereafter, ICE served Notice of Suspect Documents on Integrity listing eight employees whose I-9 forms could not be verified as authorized to work. Integrity responded none of the eight employees were employed anymore.

About seven months later, Integrity was served with a Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF), which charged the company with the failing to timely prepare I-9 forms for five employees, failing to ensure that three employees properly completed Section 1 of their I-9 forms, and failing to properly complete Section 2 or 3 of the I-9 forms for 16 employees. ICE assessed a fine of $24,684 based upon a baseline penalty of $935 and 5% enhancement for lack of good faith and seriousness of the violations.

In Integrity’s answer, it challenged the penalties asserting it was a small employer, numbering 28 employees, which should account for a 5% statutory reduction in the penalty, bad faith should not have been found, and the penalties assessed would place an undue hardship on the company.

Factual Scenario for American

American, also located in San Diego, CA, was served with a Notice of Inspection (NOI) in January 2015. Later, American was also served with a Notice of Suspect Documents listing four employees whose I-9 forms could not be verified as authorized to work. American responded none of these employees were employed at its company. ICE assessed a fine of $24,684 based upon a baseline penalty of $935 and a 5% enhancement for lack of good faith and seriousness of the violations.

ICE also served a separate NIF on American alleging it failed to timely prepare I-9 forms for 10 employees. ICE proposed a fine of $5,390 based on a baseline penalty of $440 plus 5% enhancements for lack of good faith, seriousness of the violations, and employment of three undocumented workers. American filed an Answer asserting it should have received 5% mitigation for each of these factors: small size of its workforce (48 employees), good faith, and the non-statutory factor of leniency toward small businesses.

OCAHO’s Decision

The first factor discussed was whether Integrity and American should receive 5% mitigation for being a small employer. ICE asserted the fact that both employers had small workforces, 48 and 28 employees, was inappropriate for determining whether they were small employers. ICE argued it should focus on gross sales and gross assets. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for OCAHO disagreed and applied appropriate caselaw to find both to meet the definition of small employers; thus, they were entitled to the statutory 5% mitigating factor.

Next the ALJ focused on whether Integrity and/or American should be assessed 5% enhancement for bad faith or 5% mitigation for good faith. ICE asserted three reasons for a finding of bad faith: Integrity backdated one I-9 form; both companies did not complete I-9 forms for some employees until after the NOIs issued; and their failure to present evidence that they utilize E-Verify.

Although backdating alone is insufficient to support a finding of bad faith, the ALJ found several factors supported a finding of bad faith. However, the ALJ noted the use or non-use of E-Verify is not a factor which should be reviewed in determining good faith/bad faith.

Concerning the employment of undocumented workers as an enhancement factor, the ALJ stated ICE failed to provide any evidence of their undocumented status. Rather, their enhancement was based on inclusion in the Notice of Suspect Documents. As the ALJ correctly pointed out, an allegation of undocumented status, which is essentially what placement on a Notice of Suspect Documents means, is not sufficient to prove undocumented status. Thus, no enhancement was added for this factor.

Another issue involving Integrity was whether it established an inability to pay/hardship. The ALJ did not find such, despite a loss of over $600,000, because Integrity paid approximately $500,000 in salaries and benefits – much of which was paid to its shareholders.

In determining the amount of the penalties, the ALJ was disturbed by the fact that $935 was the baseline penalty for Integrity while only $440 was the baseline penalty for American. Although the ALJ correctly noted the difference in the percentage of errors on the I-9 forms was the basis of the different baseline penalty, he found the companies should be assessed at approximately the same dollar amount and compliance rate alone is insufficient to justify wide variation. Thus, the ALJ assessed $400 baseline penalty for substantive paperwork violations and $500 for failure to prepare I-9 forms.

Based on this analysis, Integrity was found to have committed five violations for failing to prepare and/or present I-9 forms. Each of these violations will be assessed at $500, with the enhancement factor for seriousness of the violations and mitigation factor for the small size of the business cancelling each other. Accordingly, Integrity is liable for $2,525 under Count I. Under Counts II and III, Integrity was liable for substantive violations for failure to properly complete three I-9 forms and 19 substantive paperwork violations, all assessed at $400 each. Therefore, Integrity is liable for $11,325.

American was found liable for 11 substantive violations for failing to prepare and/or present I-9 forms. Each of these violations will be assessed at $500, which includes the $500 base fine, with the enhancement factor for seriousness of the violations and mitigation factor for the small size of the business cancelling each other. Accordingly, American is assessed a total civil penalty of $5,500.

Conclusion

OCAHO may have slowed down on adjudication of cases but they will be back to speed once they get their allotment of ALJs. In the meantime, now is a great time to conduct an internal I-9 audit under the supervision of an experienced immigration compliance attorney. To find out more about internal I-9 audits as well as other employer immigration compliance issues, I invite you to read The I-9 and E-Verify Handbook, a book that I co-authored with Greg Siskind, and is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0997083379.