Essential Identity & Mobile Homes

When I saw that the Court of International Trade issued an opinion in a case called Pleasure-Way Industries, Inc. v. United States, I was hoping for something more salacious than the tariff treatment of mobile homes from Canada. Despite my prurient disappointment, this is an interesting case and raises a couple interesting questions.

As with many classification cases, the material facts are not in dispute. The plaintiff purchased Sprinter vans in the United States and exported them to Canada. In Canada, the plaintiff converted the vehicles into motor homes (or possibly the "tiny house" to which I aspire). That conversion included new flooring, cabinets, plumbing (including a toilet and shower), kitchenette, and a propane system. When returned to the US, the plaintiff believes the vehicles should be afforded a duty preference under HTSUS item 9802.00.50 as “[a]rticles returned to the United States after having been exported to be advanced in value or improved in condition by any process of manufacture or other means . . . .”

Pleasure-Way took the smart initial step of seeking a binding ruling from Customs on this question. It received a positive response indicating that the imported mobile homes qualified as duty-free under 9802.00.50. Customs, however, subsequently revoked that ruling on the grounds that Pleasure-Way had failed to disclose that similar or identical transactions had taken place or were pending. That is an important lesson. While this rule, 19 CFR 177.1(a)(2)(ii), is often ignored or finessed by both sides, it does technically preclude a ruling in this circumstance. Thus, the bind ruling was revoked and declared void. But, read it. The analysis is perfectly reasonable.

Customs then liquidated the vehicles without the benefit of 9802 and, therefore, assessed duty. Plaintiff protested. Surprisingly, Customs did not adopt the analysis it previously employed in the revoked ruling and denied the protest. That brings us to the Court of International Trade.

The issue here is not whether the vehicle was advanced in value or improved in condition in Canada. It was.  The question is whether the article returned to the US is the same article that was exported. This may seem silly, but it matters because 9802.00.50 only applies to items returned to the US. That means that the processing in Canada cannot produce a new and different article. It if does, the item is new and is not “returning.”

This feels a lot like other customs questions, but it is unique. This is not an issue of substantial transformation and whether the mobile home is an article of Canada. That is a similar question, but it is not what defines 9802.00.50. This is also not a question of “essential character,” with which it is sometimes confused. The question here is whether the exported Sprinter retains its “essential identity” after being converted to a mobile home. Put in that light, this is a more complex question.

The customs regulations address this issue at 19 CFR 181.64. According to the regulation, the duty preference does not apply “to goods which, in their condition as exported from the United States to Canada or Mexico, are incomplete for their intended use and for which the processing operation performed in Canada or Mexico constitutes an operation that is performed as a matter of course in the preparation or manufacture of finished goods.” What this regulation does is tell us that advancing in value and improving the condition does not include the manufacturing of the finished article. In other words, the exported item needs to be the finished article and the processing in Canada or Mexico can only improve on that finished article.

Applying that analysis here, the Court found that the “finished goods” refers to the imported mobile homes, not the exported Sprinters. Further, the Sprinters are exported as part of the supply chain for making the mobile homes, which means the exportation is performed as a matter of course in the manufacture of the mobile homes. Thus, 9802.00.50 is inapplicable and the Court rendered judgment for Customs.

There is a little more to this, and that is where the problems arise.

First, the HTSUS, which is a statute, does not include the limitation found in the regulation. The HTSUS says, in its entirety,

9802.00.50 Articles returned to the United States after having been exported to be advanced in value or improved in condition by any process of manufacture or other means: Articles exported for repairs or alternation: Other.

Ignoring the regulation, can Plaintiff win this case? If so, then the question is whether the regulation is consistent with a “permissible” (meaning “reasonable”) reading of the HTSUS. If Congress made it clear that this HTSUS provision should apply in this circumstance, no regulation from Customs can change that. In that case, the regulation would be invalid as ultra vires. But, I don' think that happened here. The tariff item clearly requires that the article be returned. Implied in that is that it is the same article coming back to the US. The mobile home was, according to the Court of International Trade, not the same article as the Sprinter that was sent to Canada.
On balance, this strikes me as a good result. One thing I really don't like is that rather than focus on "essential identity," as has been done in prior cases, the Court inserted the intent of the exporter into the equation. Intent is notoriously hard to prove after the fact and classification generally should not depend on intent. In this opinion, intent is a small point and not necessary to the holding, so it is not an issue. On the other hand, we should be wary of "intent" creeping into classification where it does not belong.



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