The Department of Justice has announced a record anti-discrimination settlement agreement with Farmland Foods, Inc. involving allegations that the company engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination during the I-9 process. According to the DOJ, Farmland, a major U.S. producer of pork products, allegedly required newly hired non-U.S. citizens and some foreign-born U.S. citizens at its Monmouth, Illinois plant to present specific and sometimes extra work-authorization documents not required by law. Farmland has agreed to pay $290,400, the highest civil penalty in an anti-discrimination settlement. It also has agreed to train its human resources personnel about proper I-9 procedure and provide periodic reports to the DOJ for monitoring purposes.

According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC), Farmland extended a conditional offer of employment to a naturalized U.S. citizen on December 2, 2009 and asked the new hire to complete the I-9 form. At that time, the individual presented a driver’s license (List B) and an unrestricted Social Security card (List C). After the employee started orientation, Farmland (through its agent) submitted the individual to E-Verify and received a tentative nonconfirmation (TNC). Rather than having the employee go through the TNC process (which would have involved talking to a DHS representative or visiting SSA – actions not involving the employer), Farmland allegedly asked the employee to bring in her naturalization certificate and/or other documents to prove her citizenship. While it’s not clear from the complaint how the employer reacted, eventually the OCS was contacted.

According to the complaint, Farmland routinely has engaged in a pattern of discriminatory documentary practices in its Monmouth plant since at least December 1, 2009. Between December 1, 2009 and January 26, 2011, the OSC alleged that Farmland required non-U.S. citizens to specifically produce a “List A” document issued by the Department of Homeland Security in addition to other documents. Employees attesting to be a “lawful permanent resident” for example, would be required to produce an I-551 permanent resident card and employees attesting to be “an alien authorized to work” would be required to produce an I-766 employment authorization document. Meanwhile, the large majority of U.S. citizens hired were allowed to produce varied List B and List C documents without restriction.

According to the OSC, Farmland:
• Required 100% of non-U.S. citizens to produce a “List A”, while only 4.9% of U.S. citizens were required to do so.
• Required 100% of non-U.S. citizens to produce identity and work authorization documents in addition to a “List A” documents during the Form I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification process, while only 1.6% of U.S. citizens were required to do so.
• Required 88% of the non-U.S. citizen employees to produce a List A, B, and C document, while only 0.8% of the U.S. citizen employees were required to do so.

Interestingly, for the non-U.S. citizen employees, Farmland only recorded the List A document on section 2 of the Form I-9 and attached photocopies of the additional documents to the Form I-9. Thus, on the surface, this would not have appeared to be over-documentation. Regardless, Farmland’s demand for specific or excessive documents to establish work authorization clearly violated the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The lesson learned from this case is that it is not enough to have the I-9 boxes completed correctly. The process behind the I-9 is complex and should be examined. Over-documentation is a serious issue that the OSC will pursue. Experienced compliance counsel should be consulted to ensure your organization is in compliance with all applicable regulations.