Saturday, March 14, 2015

Ruling of the Week 2015.9: Do Court Decisions Matter?

We sometimes take it for granted that when the Court of International Trade or Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit makes a determination on the tariff classification of some item, the decision matters beyond the specifics of the case. That, however, is not an obvious proposition or necessarily true. It is rare that the Court of International Trade will have two or more opportunities to decide the classification of exactly the same product, though it does happen. So, the direct impact of court decisions can be limited.

Also, the Court of International is unique among federal courts in that the principal of res judicata does not apply in tariff classification litigation. As a result, an importer can lose a classification claim on its first entry and try again on its second, third, and fourth entries. Although the Court does apply the principal of stare decisis, under which it seeks uniformity in its decisions, one judge of the CIT cannot bind the decision of another judge.

At the administrative level, things are a little different. When Customs and Border Protection issues rulings, it often cites decisions from the Court of International Trade and from the Federal Circuit in support of its conclusion. This is often true with respect to the major guiding principles of customs law but is also sometimes true on specific questions of law.

That is the case with HQ H178917 (Sept. 15, 2014), in which Customs ruled on the classification of certain lighting fixtures designed specifically for use in dental applications. Customs had initially ruled that the merchandise was classified as lamps and lighting fittings of Heading 9405. In this ruling, following the court decision in Trumpf Medical Systems, Inc. v. United States, Customs has decided to revoke the earlier ruling and classify the merchandise in Heading 9018 as instruments and appliances used in medical, surgical, dental or veterinary sciences . . . ."

In the original ruling, Customs noted that dental chairs are classifiable as furniture of Heading 9402. Complete dental consoles, which include chairs and lighting, are classifiable in Heading 9018 as dental instruments and appliances. Customs concluded that lamps, which are not explicitly included as either furniture nor as dental equipment, should be classified in Heading 9405 because it is a specific provision for them.

Following the decision in Trumpf, Customs reconsidered this approach. Trumpf involved overhead lights for surgical theaters. The court looked at the characteristics of the lights and found them to mee the broad definition of the term "instrument or appliance" in the context of Heading 9018. The specific characteristics the court considered included:

  • High illumination/brightness
  • Color rendition of tissue
  • Light field diameter
  • Shadow reduction
  • Limited heat/Irradiance
  • Depth of Illumination

Applying this analysis to the dental lamps, CBP found the same characteristics present. Further, there is evidence that the lamps are only used in dental applications. Consequently, CBP revoked the earlier ruling, followed the analysis in Trumpf, and changed the classification of the lamps.

Is this a good result? I don't think so. Customs' initial ruling noted that Additional U.S. Rule of Interpretation 1(c) requires that a provision for parts and accessories does not prevail over a specific provision for the item. In this case, the lamp is arguably part of a dental chair. But, it is a lamp, provided for specifically in Heading 9405. Further, the Explanatory Notes to 9018 state that the heading excludes certain items of dental equipment when separately presented. Among the excluded items is "diffused lighting" and "shadowless lamp." If 9018 excludes these items, CBP was right the first time.

It seems that that Trumpf decision was very much influenced by the limited use for these lamps. That may not have been consistent with an application of the legal text and the General Rules of Interpretation.  This seems like a good example, along with the rulings following GRK Canada, of how the analysis in a CIT or CAFC decision trickles down to the people at Customs and Border Protection in a way that may not result in clarity.

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