Thursday, March 30, 2017

DiCarlo Lecture at JMLS April 20, 2017

I am proud to be moderating the 15th Annual Dominick L. DiCarlo Court of International Trade Lecture at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago on April 20, 2017.

John Marshall's Center for International Law was kind enough to start hosting this program in memory of the important contributions Judge DiCarlo made to the practice of trade law and to the three John Marshall alumni who served him as law clerks. The program will include a conversation with the Honorable Jennifer Choe-Groves about her transition from government and private practice to a judge of the Court of International Trade. We will also talk about the nature of practice before the specialized court. Following the Judge, there will be two informative CLE panels covering developments in trade compliance. Once will focus on developments in supply-chain risks such as the growing use of False Claims Act cases and changes in U.S. sanctions policies. The second panel will focus on numerous aspects of intellectual property protection at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection including the scope of 337 exclusion orders and review by the CIT.

Scope: Aluminum Extrusions and Finished Goods Kits

Understanding the scope of antidumping and countervailing duty orders is critically important for customs compliance professionals. It does a company no good whatsoever to find a low-cost producer of some product somewhere outside the U.S. only to later discover after importation that the merchandise is subject to an antidumping or countervailing duty. Given that antidumping and countervailing duties are often in excess of 30% and have been as high as 300%, this is a potentially serious concern. If Customs and Border Protection discovers the error and the error resulted from negligence, it can collect the unpaid duties plus penalties covering a five-year period. In some cases, that can be enough to bankrupt a small importer.

Before we get into this case, let me dispel a common misunderstanding. CBP "flags" HTSUS classifications that are potentially subject to an ADD or CVD order. As a result, many brokers and importers manage AD and CVD compliance through tariff classification. If the classification is not flagged, then the assumption is that the product is outside the scope of the order. If it is flagged, ADD and CVD (or both) must be deposited. The worst decision is to assign a different tariff classification to the merchandise in an effort to avoid an ADD or CVD order. That might constitute fraud and probably won't work anyway.

The real question is whether the imported item falls within the description of the merchandise subject to the order in the order itself. Tariff classification numbers are provided as a courtesy, for reference. They do not control scope determination.

That brings us to Meridian Products, LLC v. United States, a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The case involves the order covering aluminum extrusions from China. This is a broad order that covers any product of the specified kinds of aluminum provided that the product is made by an extrusion process. It generally covers parts and semi-finished articles. The order specifically excludes some finished goods and finished good kits that contain aluminum extrusions. Relevant to this case, the exclusion for finished good kits states that the order:

excludes finished goods containing aluminum extrusions that are entered unassembled in a “finished goods kit.”  A finished goods kit is understood to mean a packaged combination of parts that contains, at the time of importation, all of the necessary parts to fully assemble a final finished good and requires no further finishing or fabrication, such as cutting or punching, and is assembled “as is” into a finished product.  An imported product will not be considered a “finished goods kit” and therefore excluded from the scope of the [Orders] merely by including fasteners such as screws, bolts, etc. in the packaging with an aluminum extrusion product.
Meridian imported "trim kits" consisting of a decorative frame that surrounds, but does not attach to, large appliances like refrigerators and freezers. The imported kit includes the trim pieces, which are aluminum extrusions, a hexagonal wrench, fasteners, and assembly instructions. I think the trim around the oven in this picture is what we are contemplating:


Whether this combination of goods is subject to the orders went to the Court of International Trade not once but four times. The CIT ordered three remands to the  Commerce Department for reconsideration. The CIT interpreted the finished goods kit exclusion as meaning that finished goods are excluded even if those finished goods consist only of aluminum extrusions and fasteners. According to the Court, the overall context of the order indicates that the inclusion of fasteners in the packaging of an unassembled finished good does not void the exclusion. Commerce disagreed, but felt constrained to follow the Court, which is why the issue went to the Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit disagreed with the Court of International Trade. The primary reason being that the order explicitly limits the finished goods kit exemption. The petitioner and Commerce included that language about fasteners to accomplish something, so the Court needed to apply it. In this case, the application of that language indicates that the finished item to be assembled with the fasteners is not excluded because it is nothing more than the aluminum extrusions and fasteners.

The Federal Circuit also said that ignoring the fastener language renders the order meaningless. Similarly, the Court said that the CIT created inconsistency by reading the order to apply to aluminum parts imported individually but not to the same parts when imported as a kit with fasteners.

Personally, I think the source of the disagreement between the CIT and Federal Circuit is how the order treats finished goods. Before talking about kits, the order says:

The scope also excludes finished merchandise containing aluminum extrusions as parts that are fully and permanently assembled and completed at the time of entry, such as finished windows with glass, doors with glass or vinyl, picture frames with glass pane and backing material, and solar panels. 

This means that aluminum extrusions will not be subject to the orders when entered fully assembled as part of something else, like a picture frame. I think, and this is based on nothing other than trying to reconcile the two opinions, that the CIT viewed this as an indication that finished goods are outside the order whether imported assembled or disassembled. Given the language above, would a disassembled picture frame fall within the scope of the order? Yes, because it is not "fully and permanently assembled." The CIT saw the finished goods kit exclusion as taking care of that issue by permitting the disassembled picture frame to enter as non-scope merchandise, just like the assembled picture frame. I don't think the Federal Circuit would disagree with that result.

The problem is how to treat products that are finished goods consisting of nothing but aluminum extrusions and fasteners. Note that the examples above are all more than just aluminum extrusions. They are windows with glass, doors with glass or vinyl, and picture frames with glass and backing. Based on that, it appears Commerce would find Meridian's trim pieces to be within the scope of the order even if imported assembled. Reading the finished goods kit to exclude the disassembled article that would be in the scope of the orders if imported assembled, creates an anomaly that the Federal Circuit has avoided.

This is an important decision for two reasons. First, if you have scope issues, this decision provides an excellent primer on the scope process and how to analyze orders. Second, if you have been importing finished goods kits, you should reconsider your position. To fall within the exception, there should be more than aluminum extrusions and fasteners necessary to complete the product and everything should be in the box. Note that because the tool and instructions and not part of the finished product, they don't count toward the analysis of the exception.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Post ICPA Thanks

Thanks to everyone at ICPA who stopped by to tell me that they read the blog. I don't always pay close attention to the site analytics and I don't have particularly good visibility of who is visiting. Seeing you all in real life is very encouraging. Keep reading. See you in San Diego.

Friday, March 03, 2017

This is a Test: The CPSC Webinar

Because this is the 21st Century, I figured I should try more than one media. Below is the recording of a webinar I conducted with my colleague Chuck Joern.

Consumer Products and Import Requirements from Barnes Global Trade on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Holiday Rituals

WWRD U.S. v. United States is exactly the kind of case that makes me love what I do. Much like our recent foray into sunflowers seeds, this case seems to have a simple answer that gets derailed by the law. It has to do with some potentially festive articles, which is also one of my favorite legal topics.

The question here is the classification of several examples of tableware that are decorated with Christmas or Thanksgiving motifs. The items have names like "Old Britain Castles - Pink Christmas" and "12 Days of Christmas crystal flutes." Customs and Border Protection classified the merchandise in various headings based on their composition. The plaintiff protested and asserted that the merchandise is specifically designed and intended for use in conjunction with Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners. According to plaintiff, that makes the correct classification HTSUS item 9817.95.01, which reads:

Articles classifiable in subheadings 3924.10, 3926.90, 6307.90, 6911.10, 6912.00, 7013.22, 7013.28, 7013.41, 7013.49, 9405.20, 9405.40 or 9405.50, the foregoing meeting the descriptions set forth below: 
Utilitarian articles of a kind used in the home in the performance of specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations for religious or cultural holidays, or religious festive occasions, such as Seder plates, blessing cups, menorahs or kinaras . . . .

The history of this provision is interesting. After a lot of litigation, in 2007 the HTSUS was amended to clarify when utilitarian articles are "festive articles" related to holiday celebrations. The amendment added Note 1(v) to Chapter 95, which excludes from Chapter 95 "Tableware, kitchenware, toilet articles, carpets and other textile floor coverings, apparel, bed linen, table linen, toilet linen, kitchen linen and similar articles having a utilitarian function (classified according to their constituent material)."

This change caused a related problem. Changes to the HTSUS are supposed to be revenue neutral. Removing these items from the duty-free provisions of Chapter 95 resulted in an increased rate of duty. To fix that, the ITC added 9817.95.01, which is also duty free and avoids the messy issues of classification as festive articles.

What all that means is that because of Note 1(v), these products cannot be classified in Chapter 95. If they are not classifiable in 9817.95.10, then CBP correctly classified them according to their constituent materials. So, what about 9817.95.10?

A lot of the legal analysis is about breaking down text to find its correct meaning. Doing that to 9817.95.01, we find that merchandise classifiable there must be:

  1. Classifiable in 3924.10, 3926.90, 6307.90, 6911.10, 6912.00, 7013.22, 7013.28, 7013.41, 7013.49, 9405.20, 9405.40 or 9405.50
  2. Utilitarian
  3. Of a kind used in the home
  4. In the performance of specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations for religious or cultural holidays, or religious festive occasions
There was no controversy surrounding the first three elements. The sole question before the Court was, therefore, whether these items are used in the performance of specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations for religious or cultural holidays, or religious festive occasions.

Ask yourself whether Thanksgiving dinner is a specific cultural ritual celebration? It is a specific cultural celebration. That seems to be clear. After all, we all know what that looks like, right?

Normal Rockwell's Freedom from Want
via a Quinta Arts Foundation
But, is the imported tableware part of a "ritual celebration?"

We all have family rituals for Thanksgiving dinner.  Do you have to hide the alcohol before Uncle Abe arrives and starts mixing overly sweet Old Fashioneds? Does Grandpa insist on carving the turkey his special circa 1975 electric carving knife? Does little Jenny come back from Berkeley to lecture everyone on the evils of industrial turkey farming while being the sole person willing to eat her tempeh loaf and non-gmo cranberries? How about when the entire assembled family simultaneously leans back from the table just enough to loosen their belts and newly-tight pants and then moves in for pie? 

I am less comfortable opining on Christmas rituals. I can, however, say with certainty that my personal Hanukkah ritual involves using a curved carrot peeler as an implement to clear candle stubs from the menorah each of the eight nights. Another widespread ritual is the discussion among knowledgeable Jews of exactly the best means of accomplishing that task.  Add to that the ritual second degree burns inflicted on the poor bubbe tasked with frying the latkes or, in fancy households, the sufiganyot. The latter should look familiar to Rustbelt residents who enjoyed paczki this week.

The legal problem is that while those may be rituals in a colloquial sense, they are not rituals in a tariff sense. According to the Court of International Trade, a ritual is "a customarily repeated often formal act or series of acts." That means it is something done the same way, using the same steps, every time. A ritual is essentially scripted and can be reduced to the instructions necessary to accomplish it. That is distinct from the raucous and chaotic family gathering around the Thanksgiving or Christmas table.

That understanding of "ritual" is consistent with exemplars in the tariff item. Seder plates, for example, are part of the ritual Passover Seder. "Seder" means "order" and the important ritual of every Seder is telling the story of the redemption from salvery in Egypt. The event is so ritualized that there is a manual given each participant. 

No matter what crazy things happen at any particular Seder, there is a defined ritual for telling the Passover story. It involves four cups of wine, four questions, and a plate full of symbolic foods. Often, the evening ends with a debate over whether Charlton Heston was better in The 10 Commandments or in The Omega Man, but that is not in the haggadah. 

Plaintiffs in this case lost because the Court of International Trade found that a family dinner is not a "ritual," even when it falls on Thanksgiving or Christmas. In other words, every celebration is not a ritual celebration. With no ritual involved, the dinnerware could not be classified in 9817. 

Note to the tableware industry, you might want to take a lesson from Maxwell House Coffee and start printing instruction books for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.