Thursday, April 13, 2017

Surprise, Locking Pliers Are Not Wrenches

Tariff classification is based on the common and commercial meaning of the words used in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. One of the words that has been in dispute of late is "pliers" as applied to locking pliers. To picture the product at issue, think about Vise-Grips®, which is a registered trademark of Irwin Tools, the plaintiff in this case.

An older Court of International Trade case under the prior Tariff Schedule of the United States ruled that locking pliers are classified as wrenches. The reason for this was that people use locking pliers to lock onto a nut or bolt head and to turn, or wrench it. Because people use the tool to apply torque to the nut or bolt, the CIT ruled it is, despite its name, a wrench.

In the Irwin case, the CIT made two important decisions. First, it held that the prior TSUS decision did not bind it to a given result in this case. Second, the Court rejected the notion that the way people use the tool is relevant to this classification. Instead, the Court held that "wrench" is an eo nomine description of the item that does not suggest a particular use.

From that basis, the question became, what is the common and commercial meaning of a wrench. The Court concluded that is a tool with a single handle and a working head that is either an open slot or socket that has is shaped to exactly or closely fit a bolt head, nut, or similar fastener.

The locking pliers have two handles and a grasping head that is not specifically shaped to fit a fastener. That means it is not a wrench.

So, what is it? We don't know yet. This decision was on the government's motion for summary judgment. Irwin had not moved for a decision. Consequently, the case was not yet ripe for a final decision. Irwin will need to file a motion for summary judgment, reach a settlement, or use some other mechanism to get to a final judgment.


Anonymous said...

Why does Irwin have to ask for summary judgment? Why couldn't the court issue summary judgment on its own if the judge already has enough facts to decide the case??
Jason Butelle

Larry said...

You are not the first to ask that question. The law requires that a CIT judge reach the correct result in a classification case. It would seem that the judge might sua sponte (meaning "on its own motion") just decide the case. I don't think that would have been inapporpriate. But, Irwin was planning on a trial and had not asked for relief at this stage of the proceeding, so it is also reasonable for the Court to say that there is no request for relief before it. I think the most important factor here was that while it is clear these are not wrenches, the Court may not have had enough information to divide the products between pliers and clamps. That will take additional facts that Irwin needs to submit.