This is a brief report on some of the most recent, and somewhat surprising, decisions issued by the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (“OCAHO”)  in connection with the employer sanction provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), as amended by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (“IRCA”).  Although, these decisions do not completely side with employers; they are surprisingly more benign to employers than past decisions. Some of these decisions appear to auger a somewhat “kinder and gentler” course in the application of employer sanction rules and policies with respect to fines. However, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”)’ continues to initiate high numbers of investigations and audits, and pursue the highest possible fines and penalties available under statute and regulations, regardless of whether such high fines are warranted.

Here are a few examples of recent OCAHO decisions:

In US v. MEMF LLC d/b/a/ Black & Blue Steak & Crab – Buffalo (“MEMF”) (03/01/2013), a case in which a small company had no prior history of violation, no presence of unauthorized workers found at the time of the investigations, ICE determined that the company, although acting in good faith, nonetheless failed to ensure that each of seventy-three hired employees properly completed “section 1 of Form I-9, or failed itself to properly complete section 2.” True to form, ICE sought highest penalties in the amount of $605 for each violation, or a total of $44,165.

In this particular case, OCAHO reduced the fine, finding that:

"MEMF’s point is well taken that most of the statutory factors weigh in its favor. First, the record does not support the government’s finding that the restaurant is a large employer. The memorandum accompanying the government’s submission states unequivocally that the number of employees was 234, but the record makes clear that MEMF never had that many employees during a single time period. Our case law has previously noted the high turnover inherent in the restaurant industry, and in assessing the number of employees has focused on the number that were actually working at a particular time rather than on the aggregate number of total employees and former employees. Cf. United States v. Pegasus Rest., 10 OCAHO no. 1143, 6-7 (2012) (also considering the Small Business Administration standards for code 5812, noninstitutional “eating and drinking places”);United States v. Snack Attack Deli, Inc., 10 OCAHO no. 1137, 7 (2010)." [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the number of employees who must be considered for purposes of calculating fines is the number of employee that actually worked at a particular time rather than “the aggregate number of total employees and former employees.”

OCAHO reduced the fine, concluding that:

"Apart from seriousness, all the other factors are favorable to the employer. The company is small, it acted in good faith, and it had no unauthorized workers or previous history of noncompliance. MEMF did not argue an inability to pay the amount requested but invoked a different nonstatutory factor of equity, and said that the proposed penalty would create an undue hardship for the business and was disproportionate in light of all the favorable factors. Considering the record as a whole in light of all the facts and circumstances, the penalties will be adjusted as a matter of discretion to $450 each or a total of $32,850." [Emphasis added].

In U.S. v. El Azteca Dunkirk, Inc. (“El Azteca”)(03/13/2013), which also involved a small restaurant with no history of prior violations, ICE sought high penalties of $11,000 for twenty violations (substantive violations of failure to enter proper List A, B, or C documents in section 2 and bad faith), for all past and present employees. Moreover, ICE alleged that illegal conduct on the part of the owners had taken place, but offered no evidence.

In this particular case OCAHO stated that “the facts recited in the memorandum may support an assertion that the violations are serious, but they do not support a finding of bad faith.” Moreover, OCAHO further explained that “the government has the burden of proof to demonstrate the existence of any aggravating factor by a preponderance of the evidence, see United States v. Carter, 7 OCAHO no. 931, 121, 159 (1997), and that burden has not been met with respect to the assertion of bad faith.”

OCAHO concluded that:

"The record here does not support enhancement of the government’s baseline penalties on the bases requested. Were I approaching the question de novo, a somewhat higher penalty would be assessed, but here there is no compelling reason not to give the company the benefit of the government’s original baseline penalty without the enhancements. In view of the minimal fine assessed no payment schedule will be established … El Azteca Dunkirk is liable for twenty violations of 8 U.S.C. § 1324a(b) and is directed to pay penalties in the amount of $2200." [Emphasis added.]

In US v. Seven Elephants Distributing Corp. (“Elephant”)(03/18/2013), a case in which OCAHO found that an employer’s copying of documents and attaching them to a form I-9, cannot “substitute for properly completing section 2 of an I-9 form.” Elephant’s failure to complete section 2 of the I-9s, a substantive violation, was aggravated by the fact that seven unauthorized workers were found in connection with the inspection. Yet, OCAHO reduced the fines in its decision stating that:

"The penalties the government requested are very near the maximum permissible, and appear disproportionate to the current size and status of the employer. As explained in United States v. Pegasus Restaurant., Inc., 10 OCAHO no. 1143, 7 (2012), proportionality is critical to setting penalties, and penalties so close to the maximum should be reserved for more egregious violations than are shown here, United States v. Fowler Equipment Co., 10 OCAHO no. 1169, 6 (2013). They will accordingly be adjusted to an amount closer to the mid-range of permissible penalties. For the most serious violation, that in Count I, the penalty will be assessed at $600. For the seven violations in Count II that involve the I-9s of unauthorized workers, the penalties will be assessed at $500 each. For the remaining twenty-six violations in Count II the penalties will be assessed at $400 each. The total penalty is $14,500." [Emphasis added].

In U.S. v. Siam Thai Sushi restaurant, d/b/a Four Siamese Company, Inc. (“Siam”)(03/27/2013), a case in which ICE found the employer had committed serious violations (made substantive errors) and lacked good faith for failing to complete a Form I-9 for each employee, OCAHO decided that “neither the fact that an employer’s I-9s are missing nor that they are defective is sufficient to show a lack of good faith.” And that:

"[The] penalty should be sufficiently meaningful to accomplish the purpose of deterring future violations, United States v. Jonel, Inc., 8 OCAHO no. 1008, 175, 201 (1998), without being “unduly punitive” in light of the respondent’s resources, United States v. Minaco Fashions, Inc., 3 OCAHO no. 587, 1900, 1909 (1993). Here, while Siam Thai’s violations are considered serious, most of the statutory factors weigh in its favor. Yet ICE’s proposed penalty of $935 per violation is close to the maximum permissible fine. Based on the totality of the circumstances reflected in the record as a whole and, in particular, on the respondent’s circumstances and resources, the proposed penalty will be modified to an amount closer to the mid-range of possibilities. The penalties will be set at $500 each for the eleven I-9s prepared in March and April of 2009, $450 for the I-9 prepared in September of 2009, and $400 each for the six I-9s prepared in June and July of 2010, resulting in a total of $8350." [Emphasis added].

In other words, although the government was seeking high fines for “serious violations” due to  incomplete and missing I-9s forms, because Siam is a “mom and pop” operation, OCAHO reduced the fines in accordance to Siam’s “circumstances and resources” to an “amount closer to the mid-range of possibilities.”

Although many employers may be relieved at the OCAHO’s recent willingness to be measured in its application of fines and penalties, or gone soft on fines, it still remains true that compliance is always better.  ICE can be expected to persist in its effort to extract the highest possible penalties.