Thursday, March 30, 2017

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.

No comments: