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By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law, PLLC
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Employer Solutions Staffing Group II, LLC v. OCAHO (August 11, 2016) reversed an OCAHO decision concerning the issue of personal versus corporate attestation of employee’s documents in Section 2 of the I-9 form; thus, it vacated the $226,000 civil penalty.
ESSG is a staffing company based in Edina, Minnesota. It contracted with Larsen Manufacturing Co. in El Paso, Texas to provide employees. Then ESSG subcontracted with Flexicorps, Inc. to make all the hiring decisions for temporary employees at the Larsen facility.
In so doing, ESSG had Flexicorps supervise the completion of Section 1 of the I-9 forms by employees and examine original documents presented by the employees for Section 2. However, instead of Flexicorps completing the employer certification at that time, ESSG had Flexicorps make color copies of the documents and send the I-9 forms and color copies of the documents to ESSG’s corporate headquarters. At that point, an ESSG employee examined the photocopies and completed Section 2, including the signed attestation that the employer examined the documents and they appeared to be genuine.
In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) served a Notice of Inspection on ESSG for the Larsen facility and thereafter determined ESSG’s procedure in signing the certification was contrary to the law. After a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of OCAHO, OCAHO agreed with ICE, found 242 violations and assessed a penalty of over $226,000.
The 5th Circuit analyzed the statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the accompanying regulations, and any applicable case law. The INA states a “person or entity must attest… on a form” that it has verified the employee’s document(s). See § 1324a (b)(1)(A). Thus, ESSG argued corporate attestation is consistent with the INA.
The regulations state “an employer, his or her agent, or anyone acting directly or indirectly in the interest thereof, must” complete Section 2 on the I-9 form and sign the attestation. § 274a.2(b)(1)(ii)(B). The Court said it did not read this regulation to require the same person who met the hired employee and examined the original documents to be the one to sign the attestation.
The Court then reviewed whether ESSG had fair warning of OCAHO’s reading of the statute and regulations. It found it did not, especially given the fact there were no prior OCAHO decisions on the matter and the ALJ only cited “commonsense” for her ruling, not any statute, regulation or case law. Thus, given the language of the INA and its regulations, the Court found ESSG lacked fair notice of OCAHO’s position.
The Court concluded a “reasonable interpretation” permits corporate attestation due to the language of the INA. Thus, the Court concluded ESSG did not violate the INA. However, before employers celebrate the victory, it must be noted the Court went on to state their holding “does not address whether ICE can lawfully prohibit corporate attestations”; only that ESSG was not given fair notice.
Since this is a Court of Appeals decision, it does not change ICE’s and OCAHO’s position and they are free to clarify whether corporate attestation is prohibited.
An interesting question is whether this decision may provide an avenue to resolve the remote hire issue where the employer does not view the original documents. Obviously, it will depend on ICE’s and OCAHO’s position on this issue going forward