Saturday, August 12, 2017

XYZ and Lever Protection (Part 2)

This is a discussion of the jurisdictional merits of XYZ Corporation v. United States. If you are not up on the ins and outs of parallel (or "gray market") imports, read Part 1 of this post.

Remember what is happening here: Plaintiff, going by the pseudonym XYZ Corporation, wants a preliminary injunction to prevent Customs and Border Protection from granting Lever Rule protection to Duracell batteries imported in bulk or in retail packaging.

The first question the Court has to decide is whether it even has jurisdiction to resolve this dispute. The Court of International Trade, like all federal courts, is a court of special and limited jurisdiction. It can only act if Congress gave it the authority to do so. There are two possible bases of jurisdiction in this case.

The first is 28 USC 1581(h), which states in full (with my emphasis):
The Court of International Trade shall have exclusive jurisdiction of any civil action commenced to review, prior to the importation of the goods involved, a ruling issued by the Secretary of the Treasury, or a refusal to issue or change such a ruling, relating to classification, valuation, rate of duty, marking, restricted merchandise, entry requirements, drawbacks, vessel repairs, or similar matters, but only if the party commencing the civil action demonstrates to the court that he would be irreparably harmed unless given an opportunity to obtain judicial review prior to such importation.

The second basis is 28 USC 1581(i)(4), which is the residual provision giving the Court jurisdiction over actions against the United States challenging CBP decisions relating to, among other things, the administration and enforcement of duties and quantitative restrictions on the importation of merchandise.

These two bases for jurisdiction are mutually exclusive. The Court cannot exercise jurisdiction under section 1581(i) if it has jurisdiction under 1581(h). Thus, the question comes down to whether this challenge is properly heard in the CIT as a request for declaratory judgment under 1581(h).

The first factor is clear. This is a pre-importation review. The next question is whether the granting of Lever Rule protection to Duracell is a "ruling." In this context, a "ruling" is a determination as to the manner in which CBP will treat a completed transaction. Here, CBP has made a determination to grant Lever Rule protection against merchandise bearing the Duracell trademark, meaning it has decided how it will treat those future importations. Moreover, under Customs' own regulations, a ruling is a written statement, issued by Headquarters, published in the Customs Bulletin, interpreting the customs and related laws. The decision to grant Lever Rule protection satisfies those requirements and is, therefore, a ruling. Furthermore, it is a ruling about restricted merchandise, making it appropriate subject matter for declaratory judgment.

The next of the elements required to secure (h) jurisdiction is where things usually fall apart: irreparable harm. More often than not, a customs can be resolved with a refund of duties, taxes, and fees, plus interest. That means there is almost always a way to repair the harm, making (h) inapplicable. But, there are things a money judgment can't fix such as loss of goodwill, damage to reputation, loss of future business opportunities, etc. Here, XYZ  showed that it has lost sales and suffered damage to its business reputation as a result of the grant of Lever Rule protection to Duracell. It has shown through an affidavit and testimony that customers are concerned about potential repercussions from the owners of the Duracell mark. Plaintiff also faces great uncertainty regarding whether its shipments will be released. These are significant, non-monetary harms that cannot be remedied through a refund of duties or other money judgment.

As a result of these conclusions, the Court of International Trade found that it has 1581(h) jurisdiction to hear this challenge to the extension of Lever Rule protection. That means that is does not have jurisdiction under 1581(i).

The next set of questions has to do with whether the plaintiff in this case has standing to challenge the CBP determination. "Standing" is the legal requirement that the plaintiff have a legitimate interest in the litigation. It typically means that the plaintiff must be the party that was injured. You can't sue the driver who caused an accident if you were miles away and uninjured. Here, XYZ is an importer of the affected merchandise and has complained of an injury to its business as a direct consequence of CBP's action. It has standing to sue.

The last question is whether the issue is ripe for decision. Generally, federal courts will only review final agency action. Here, CBP issued its final notice and declared that Lever Rule protection would commence. That is a final agency action. Furthermore, the issue is ready for resolution; all the relevant facts are known and the legal issue can be decided.

All of which means that this case is properly before the Court of International Trade.

The Court has denied the requested preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Lever Rule protections. That is because the relief available under (h) us limited to declaratory judgment with prospective application to future imports.

But, this case is far from over. There is still the question of whether the grant of Lever Rule protection requires public notice and comment under the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"). If it does, the grant of Lever Rule protection in this case, and potentially all prior cases, is void. That would be a big deal. The Court has ordered the parties to confer and submit a scheduling order for the resolution of the remaining issues. In other words, the Court will likely have to decide whether the regulations implementing the Lever Rule are consistent with the requirements of the APA and possibly the due process clause.

This will be an interesting case to follow.

More to come. I am sitting on a penalty case and the important philosophical question of whether chewing gum is food. And, we might have to talk about bankruptcy law.

2 comments:

Lowell DeFrance said...

Larry,
I tell clients when bringing in grey market goods and there is and issue that products are substantially different than the product they sell here to put the Lever label on on the goods prior to importing.

At the recent open house at customs I asked the lead inspector if he had ever seen a lever rule label on any products, he suspected of trade mark. He told me he has never seen one and wouldn't know what to do if he saw one. I think he would just seize it anyways. Definitely a seize first and ask questions later modis operandi.

It will be interesting to see what the details of this case are. I felt everything was clear under Lever and Kirtsaeng currently.

Larry said...

Interesting approach. I have seen Lever labels on food products, particularly on Mexican food. I have never had a client ask about putting the labels on their imports.