A recent decision from the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer provides an important reminder: keep up on I-9 compliance or face a sizable civil penalty.

Pursuant to 8 U.S.C. Section 1324(a)(1)(B) of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, employers must examine and document the identity and immigration documents of employees. Since the Act’s 1986 enactment, the Employment Eligibility Verification Form, colloquially known as the I-9, is used to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for work in the United States. Both the employee and the employer must complete the form. In addition, employers must examine the worker’s documentation establishing his or her identity and employment authorization to determine if the documents “reasonably appear to be genuine.”

In 2013, the agency transitioned employers to use of a new form with additional fields (including employee telephone number and e-mail address), new formatting, and clarified instructions. Failure to complete an I-9 form can lead to an enforcement action from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with penalties ranging from $110 to $1,100 per form.

Recently, a California-based event design and construction company learned that lesson the hard way when the agency charged the employer with 818 violations of the statute, seeking $812,665.25 in civil penalties.

The company’s “employment verification procedures are sufficiently defective to foreclose a claim of either good faith or substantial compliance,” Administrative Law Judge Ellen K. Thomas wrote, finding that the company engaged in the majority of the violations alleged.

The judge found most of the violations occurred in Section 2 of the I-9, which requires a representative from the employer to review the documents presented by the employee to prove identity and work authorization and then sign, under penalty of perjury, that he or she reviewed the documents. ICE found that 797 of the company’s I-9 forms were left blank. Characterizing the employer attestation in Section 2 as “the very heart” of the verification process, the ALJ fined Hartmann $700 for each violation, or $557,900.

Judge Thomas found other serious violations in the company’s I-9 forms, including failing to ensure that in Section 1 employees checked a box attesting to status as a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, or alien authorized to work (with the need to add an alien registration number if either lawful permanent resident or alien authorized to work were selected). Many employees also failed to sign Section 1, the court found, and the company neglected to have employees list a driver’s license expiration date in Section 2.

The company tried to mitigate the fine by arguing that it improved its processes after receiving notice from ICE, but the judge was not persuaded, particularly as the company made no effort until after the federal agency came knocking. “

[T]he company does appear to need additional motivation to conform its employment verification processes to what the law requires,” Judge Thomas wrote, issuing a total fine of $605,250.

To avoid a similar fate, compliance with I-9 requirements should be taken seriously and employers should ensure that the appropriate forms are being correctly filled out.

Read the decision.