Ford Case Transits to Trial

I've been waiting for a potentially block-buster decision in Ford Motor Co. v. United States, which is pending before the U.S. Court of International Trade. We now have a preliminary decision which is interesting, but is not yet in a position to bust any blocks.

This case is about the tariff classification of imported Ford Transit Connect vehicles made in Turkey. At the time of entry, all Transits have swing-out front doors with windows, second-row sliding doors with windows, and swing-out rear doors, some of which have windows. The imported vehicles also have two rows of seats, rear passenger windows, rear passenger seat belts, child-locks on the rear sliding doors, a rear cup holders in the front console, a full length cloth headliner, coat hooks, and a map pocket in the second row. Starting in 2010, Ford created a "cost reduced" second row seat for use in Transit vans. The second row seats lack headrests, "comfort wires," a tumble lock mechanism and labels. Finally, the rear seats are made of a "cost reduced fabric." There are two trim levels, so the details vary somewhat, but this should be enough detail to convey the point.

Shortly after customs clearance, but while still within the legal confines of the port of entry, the rear seats, rear door windows, and other passenger amenities are removed to convert the vehicles to the small cargo vans you probably see every day. They look like this:

There are passenger wagon versions of the Transit, but the case only involves vehicles that are ultimately delivered as cargo vans.

Why would Ford go to all this effort? Because in the 1960's, the US got into a spat with Europe over its duties on chicken imports from the US. In retaliation, the US imposed a 25% duty on trucks. That duty remains on the books today and is called "the Chicken Tax." The duty on cars for the transport of persons is, on the other hand, just 2.5%. That difference makes it worthwhile for Ford to import tall passenger cars and, after importation, convert them to trucks, saving 22.5%. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of tariff engineering. Or, as the government contends in this case, it is an impermissible "artifice or disguise" to avoid the correct assessment of customs duties.

Think about all the Transit Connect vehicles you see in the course of a day. I see lots. This is obviously a big deal case for Ford and for Customs and Border Protection. It is also a big deal in general because this case might set the parameters for legally acceptable tariff engineering. That's why it has been closely watched.

The starting point for this analysis is that the classification of an article must be ascertained by examining it in the condition in which it was imported. Processing subsequent to importation is generally not relevant. However, an importer cannot "resort to disguise or artifice" to avoid an applicable duty. That means that if the imported article "is not the article described as dutiable at a specific rate, it does not become dutiable under the description because it has been manufactured or prepared for the express purpose of being imported at a lower rate." The Court of International Trade expressed this as a "bright line test" of "does the article, as imported, fall within the description sought to be applied?"

Thus, if the imported Transit, with reduced cost seats and rear windows is, in fact, classifiable as a passenger car, then it will be classified as such regardless of subsequent modification. That is the important legal conclusion at this point of this case. What the Court is saying is that Ford's motive of reducing duty liability and subsequent processing does not dictate the classification. Rather, if the imported Transit vehicles, which are described as passenger cars, are passenger cars when imported, then Ford will win this case. That is a big deal, if it holds.

To determine whether the Transits are passenger cars, the Court of International Trade started to appy the analysis of a 1994 Federal Circuit case involving early sport-utility vehicles, Marubeni Am. Corp. v. United States. That case set out lots of features that indicate that a vehicle is designed primarily for passenger use or primarily for cargo use.

According to the Court, it has a lot of details about the vehicle as imported and post-conversion. But, it lacks some necessary information about the cost reduced rear seats. The Court believes that the missing information is necessary for it to apply Marubeni and make a final determination in this case. Consequently, the Court denied motions for summary judgment filed by both parties. That means that the parties will have to either present additional evidence, possibly in the form of an agreed set of facts, or the case will have to be decided following a trial on the open questions of fact.

Either way, we don't know the result yet. It appears that if (and I don't know this to be true) the rear seats installed in imported Transits are not adequate for passenger use, Ford may have a a problem. But, it might be that the seats are just awful and at the same time perfectly adequate for passenger use. Although some other facts may be at issue, this seems to be the sticking point. So, we need to wait for a complete result. Obviously, I will keep watching.


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