By Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

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In another decision involving a small restaurant in Hamburg, the Office of Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) reduced the restaurant’s penalty from $46,657 to $33,725 for four violations of failing to prepare and/or present I-9 forms and 67 violations for failing to properly complete I-9 forms. See U.S. v. 3679 Commerce Place, Inc. d/b/a Waterstone Grill, 12 OCAHO no.1296 (2017).

Since Waterstone Grill admitted liability, the only issue before OCAHO was the amount of the penalties. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used $935 as the baseline penalty per violation based on a violation rate of over 50%. In an unusual twist, ICE found a 25% mitigation was warranted based upon the restaurant’s good faith in preparing the I-9 Forms. Normally, the five statutory factors, including good faith, are worth the 5% mitigation or aggravation. ICE also mitigated by 5% each due to the restaurant’s small size and the 67 employees in Court II were determined to be eligible for employment. ICE aggravated by 5% for the seriousness of the violations.

Waterstone Grill asserted it deserved mitigation for three of the four employees in Count I because they were authorized to work and several non-statutory factors, including general public policy of leniency toward small businesses, its cooperation with ICE during the investigation, including enrolling in E-Verify, and its inability to pay the $47,000 penalty.

OCAHO found 25% mitigation for good faith was unwarranted, especially where ICE offered no explanation for the size of the mitigation. However, some mitigation, which was not defined, was warranted. Concerning its inability to pay, OCAHO found it failed to show it could not pay the penalty, but found the proposed penalty should be viewed in light of the company’s financial situation. Although OCAHO found an employer’s post-inspection remedial measures may support mitigation, it declined to find such here.

OCAHO found ICE failed to prove the employees in Count I were unauthorized to work. OCAHO stated “it does not always follow that a factor found not to be aggravating (which is normally where the factor of unauthorized workers is found) must necessarily and automatically be mitigating.” However, in this case, OCAHO decided this was a mitigating factor.

OCAHO determined the proposal penalty should be reduced to $475 each for a total penalty of $33,725. As the facts demonstrate, if Waterstone would have performed an internal I-9 audit before ICE arrived with the NOI, most of the I-9 violations could have been corrected and not subject to a penalty.