Sunday, November 04, 2007

Heartland Cleanup

Heartland By-Products is one of those cases that seems to never quite end. The basic facts are that Heartland wanted to import sugar syrup from Canada to the U.S. and sought to arrange its manufacturing in a way that avoided the potential high rate of duty for out of quota shipments. To make sure it had engineered its process properly, it requested and received a ruling from Customs that its product was not subject to quota. Following the ruling, Heartland started importing sugar syrup.

Apparently, the U.S. industry did not appreciate this plan and it asked CBP to reconsider. CBP obliged and eventually revoked the ruling. Seeking to prevent the revocation ruling from becoming final, Heartland went to the Court of International Trade for a declaratory judgment that the revocation was invalid. This happened under 28 U.S.C. 1581(h), which gives the CIT jurisdiction to review negative prospective customs rulings if the importer can show the ruling will cause irreparable harm. This is tough to do. But, the CIT found irreparable harm and that the revocation was invalid. So, Heartland kept on importing.

The government, however, appealed. Importantly, it did not ask for a stay of the CIT's judgment. Eventually, the Federal Circuit reversed the CIT and held that the revocation was proper. Now, this leads to the current question: How should CBP liquidate the entries that Heartland made up until the Federal Circuit's decision was final (i.e., the time of "mandate")? Customs wants to liquidate at the higher out-of-quota rate. Heartland believes the CIT decision should apply to all entries up until the date of the mandate.

The Court of International Trade held in this most recent decision that the Federal Circuit's decision does not apply retroactively to nullify the 1581(h) decision. Rather, it applies only to entries made after the date of the Federal Circuit's mandate. Any other conclusion, according to the CIT would render its decision a mere advisory opinion without practical effect (and Courts generally don't like to do that). Thus, the Court required CBP to liquidate the affected entries in accordance with the original decision.

The wider impact of this decision is probably limited. First, this all might have been avoided had Customs sought a stay of the CIT's original decision until the Federal Circuit decided the appeal. Customs might also have been able to simply seek an agreement with Heartland to hold off on liquidations. But, the bigger point is that (h) cases produce judgments that have practical impact and results. They are, in effect, injunctions against contrary action by CBP until the Federal Circuit says otherwise. That seems to be new law for these unusual circumstances.

1 comment:

Mike Smiszek said...

If we cut to the chase on this sordid mess of litigation (what is this...the sixth CIT/CAFC decision?) what we have is a company that got shafted for adhering to its "reasonable care" obligations. Heartland went to Customs, explained its business plan, shared its tariff engineering formula, got a favorable "binding" ruling, and then imported under the supposed protection of the binding ruling. Along comes a powerful industry lobby that strong-arms Customs into revoking the ruling, causing Heartland years of litigation expense and lost business opportunity. Disgraceful. Not a proud moment for government.