Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ruling of the Week 2015.25: Stipulation Schmipulation

This one is for the lawyers. I'll try my best to make it not too far "inside baseball."

Cases in the Court of International Trade don't always result in a published opinion. There are lots of ways customs cases get resolved. It is possible that one side or the other will just give up and file a voluntary dismissal. In other cases, the parties come to an agreement as to the proper treatment of the entry in favor of the plaintiff. When that happens, the parties file a Stipulated Judgment on Agreed Statement of Facts under Rule 58.1. The Court will usually then enter the judgment and Customs will reliquidate the entry with a refund to the plaintiff or cut a lump-sum refund check.

Sometimes there is a combination of events. Because of the large number of related cases at the CIT, the Court has a unique process by which it allows parties to designate a case a "test case" (Rule 84) while suspending other cases that involve the same issues. Once the test case is resolved, the suspended cases are moved to a "Suspension Disposition Calendar" (Rule 85) for resolution. Usually (at least in my experience), the suspended cases will be resolved consistent with the test case. That means that if the plaintiff wins, the suspended cases will be resolved by a Rule 58.1 stipulation. If the government wins, the suspended cases will be dismissed.

The reason I am going on about this is the recent Customs and Border Protection ruling HQ 236655 (May 27, 2015). The underlying question was the tariff treatment and NAFTA eligibility of evening primrose oil. You may recall evening primrose oil from its earlier work here. In an earlier phase of the dispute, CBP denied several protests and the importer filed summonses at the Court of International Trade. Those cases were resolved on a Rule 58.1 Stipulated Judgment on Agreed Statement of Facts. According to those judgments, the EPO was to be reliquidated as a food preparation and as qualifying for preferential treatment under the NAFTA. In other words, the Customs and the Department of Justice decided that the importer was correct and a judge of the United States Court of International Trade issued an order to that effect.

Fast forward to subsequent entries. One might think that Customs would provide those entries the same treatment as it did the entries in the court cases. That turns out not to be the case. Customs liquidated contrary to the judgment, classifying the EPO as a vegetable oil not qualifying for NAFTA. The importer protests, as you would imagine, and pointed to the prior judgments of the Court of International Trade.

This raises two very important issues.

First, does CBP have to treat a stipulated judgments as precedential decisions that control the liquidation of future entries not covered by the summonses? Second, if CBP wants to take an action contrary to the stipulated judgments, must it go through the public notice process to alert the trade that it is limiting the application of a court decision?

On the first issue, the stipulated judgment states that "the products subject to this action" will be liquidated as food preparations with NAFTA preference, as the importer wanted. In addition, the DOJ lawyer involved apparently sent an email to counsel for the importer stating that EPO capsules would be liquidated accordingly. Taken together, the importer claims this binds CBP on future entries.

Customs disagreed. Citing a couple prior cases, Customs stated that a stipulated judgment is a contract in the nature of a settlement agreement between the parties. The unique aspect of a stipulated judgment is that it is entered into in open court and ratified by the Judge. That makes it enforceable. But, because it is a contract, it is enforced like a contract. A party to a contract is only entitled to the benefits of the contract. In this case, and in the case of most stipulated judgments, the agreement is limited to the entries "subject to the action." That means that the stipulation only covers those entries on the summons and Customs need not apply it to future entries.

This may be surprising. After all, this is a judgment and the judgment is enforceable. Beyond the specific language of the stipulation, the real problem is that customs law is governed by a 1927 Supreme Court case called United States v. Stone & Downer. Under that case, the normal rules of federal civil procedure do not apply. Technically, we do not have res judicata. That means that the decision in one case does not dictate the outcome of a future case involving the same parties and the same facts. As we say in Customs law, each entry stands on its own. So, CBP's analysis, I am sad to say, makes some sense to me.

On the second issue, CBP held that it is not required to publish a notice that it is limiting the stipulated judgment. We need to take a step back because if you are a regular lawyer who does not do customs litigation, this will sound crazy.

Under 19 USC 1625(d), Customs has the ability to publish a notice limiting the application of a court decision. This allows Customs to effectively limit a court decision to the party and particular products involved, avoiding wider application of the legal principle. Lawyers might reasonably wonder why this is constitutional and what allows Congress to tell an Executive branch agency that it can limit a decision of the Judiciary. I don't know the answer and think, if pushed, this would be unconstitutional. Happily, it only happens in rare circumstances.

Here, Customs relied on its decision that the stipulated judgment is a contract and not a true judgment of the Court. Given that premise, there is no need for Customs to publish a notice limiting the stipulated judgment because it is self limiting to the entries at issue.

So that's the ruling. What's the impact?

There is currently a bit of controversy over how cases are managed at the Court of International Trade. Some lawyers like to file a summons and leave the cases unassigned while working with the government to arrive at a stipulated judgment. This can take a long time and works as long as the Court gives extensions to the initial 18-month period to remain on the "Reserve Calendar." Other lawyers move more quickly to designate a test case and litigate the matter. Afterwards, the parties likely can work out stipulated judgments for any suspended cases.

Looking at this ruling, it strikes me that an importer who expects to continue to import the item will not want to rely on a stipulated judgment without an actual decision from the Court of International Trade. That means more reliance on the test case-designation process and less on the Reserve Calendar.

Another new concern might be the actual terms of the agreement. For the most part, the terms are dictated by the Court's Form 9, which only addresses the stipulable entries. Should lawyers be inserting additional language in the agreement to control future entries? I would like to do that, but it seems likely to be a deal breaker for Justice. Also, rumor has it that some judges do not like deviation from Form 9. Maybe the better approach is to have an actual settlement agreement that addresses future entries. That is still probably a deal breaker. So that is a quandary.







1 comment:

Alan Goggins said...

A stipulated judgment is a contract? Really? In a contract, both parties provide mutual promises to give or do something for the other. A stipulated judgment is the equivalent of "government, if you sign this K, you will give money to plaintiff." That is not a contract as the plaintiff makes no promise to give or do anything in return.

I have always thought the stipulated judgment form should be modified to 1) indicate where the duty refund checks should be sent; and 2) indicate a time limit after signed off by the court in which the duty refunds must be issued. That would make the CIT's settlements the same as every other trial court in the U.S.