Thursday, July 30, 2015

There is a Trial on the Horizon

Penalty cases are abundant these days.

In United States v. Horizon Products International, Inc., the government is seeking $394,794 in unpaid duties and penalties plus interest. The imported merchandise is plywood and the underlying issue is whether the wood was properly classified. Horizon conceded that the merchandise was misclassified and that it owes about $70,000 in unpaid duties. The issue is the remaining penalties and interest.

Regarding the pre-judgment interest on unpaid duties, the Court has the discretion to order or not order the payment of pre-judgment interest, which is intended to compensate the United States for the loss of the duties over time prior to payment. When deciding whether to award pre-judgment interest, the Court is supposed to provide full compensation while also considering several factors including:

  • The degree of personal wrongdoing on the part of the defendant
  • The availability of alternative investment opportunities for the plaintiff (i.e., the United States)
  • Whether the plaintiff delayed in bringing the action to recover the duties
  • Other considerations of fundamental fairness
 Here, the Court found no unreasonable delay by the United States and that the importer has not paid the outstanding duties. Thus, the Court ordered that Horizon pay prejudgment interest. I do have to wonder about the alternative investment opportunities. That factor essentially asks whether the U.S. would have done something useful or profitable with the money. I don't want to sound cynical, but I think that probably cuts against the U.S. getting interest, but that is just me.

Regarding the penalty amount, Horizon conceded the misclassification. That means there was a material false statement on the entry documents. My experience is that Customs and Border Protection will generally assume that means there was negligence or worse. That makes sense since the law puts the burden on the importer to show that it was not negligent. That's what this case is all about and why it is interesting. Horizon contends that there is an open question of fact as to whether it exercised reasonable care in making the entries.

What evidence does Horizon have that it exercised reasonable care? To start with, it used a reputable customs broker. Congress identified this as evidence of reasonable care in the legislative history to the Customs Modernization Act, but it is not a 100% defense.The government contends that Horizon has not shown this it actually worked with the broker in a "good faith effort" to ascertain the correct classification.

There are some records of communication with the broker in the form of faxes. [Side note: these entries are from 2006 and 2007, well past my presumed date of extinction for fax machines.] The faxes, according to the Court, "raise more questions than they answer . . . ."

The Court then makes a well received (by me) observation (the emphasis is mine):

The Government would like the court to infer that all the responsibility for the erroneous entries rests on the shoulders of Horizon, but the court could just as easily infer that the customs broker shares a portion (if not all) of the responsibility. Customs brokers, after all, have statutory and regulatory responsibilities to classify merchandise correctly. E.g., 19 C.F.R. § 111.29 (requiring customs brokers to “exercise due diligence . . . in preparing or assisting in the preparation and filing of records relating to any customs business matter”); see also 19 C.F.R. § 152.11 (“Merchandise shall be classified in accordance with the [HTSUS] . . . .”); 19 U.S.C. § 1641(d) (allowing Customs to penalize a broker who “has violated any provision of any law enforced by [Customs] or the rules or regulations issued under any such provision”); United States v. Santos, 36 CIT ___, ___, 883 F. Supp. 2d 1322, 1327-30 (2012) (sustaining as reasonable a § 1641 penalty on a motion for default judgment against broker who allegedly misclassified imported goods).

This is important. It shows an understanding by the Court that it can be reasonable for an importer to rely on a broker for classification advice. But, the facts matter. We need to know the relative involvement of the broker and the importer in the decision, the reasonableness of the broker's advice, and other factors that might indicate that the importer acted reasonably. The Court is wisely saying that where reliance on a broker is raised as evidence of reasonable care, it needs to look at the whole picture. It is not enough for CBP or the broker to fall back on the old saw that "the importer is ultimately responsible for the entry."

The Court, therefore, found a genuine issue of material fact in dispute. That means the case is not appropriate for summary judgment. It will, therefore, need to go to a trial if it is not settled.

There are two other issues worth a mention. First, Horizon made the argument that it should be excused from the penalty under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act. This is a useful tool for small businesses that face a civil administrative penalty despite having acted in good faith. It does not apply here because Horizon has not paid the duties owed.

The last point is whether the Court should mitigate the penalty below the demand by Customs. That involves a detailed analysis of the "Complex Machine Works" factors. These are 14 factors the Court is to consider when reviewing the amount of a penalty previously imposed by Customs. This is another reason why this case is not ready for summary judgment.

It appears that Horizon and the U.S. government are going to be squaring off in court soon.

1 comment:

Adam said...

How could the court order Horizon to pay the unpaid duties before determining whether there was any negligence? The statute only provides for payment of duties if the loss is the "result of a violation of subsection (a)." Subsection (a) provides that "no person, by fraud, gross negligence, or negligence" may enter or introduce merchandise into the U.S. by means of a material false statement or omission. If there is no negligence, then there hasn't been a violation of subsection (a) and, therefore, there is no requirement to pay lost duties.

I get that Horizon (mistakenly?) conceded that it owed the unpaid duties, but I don't think that gives the court the authority to order them to pay.

Thanks for the blog.