The Three-Percent Solution

In real life, I represent importers and exporters who need to maintain compliance with U.S. laws and regulations concerning international trade. For the most part, that means customs law and export controls. As Bryan Garner once said at a seminar I attended, "hence the title" [of my blog].

One of the more complicated and potentially troublesome areas of compliance for importers involves antidumping and countervailing duty orders. The financial consequences of such an order can be dire for companies that entered into purchase contracts prior to the order or without knowing that an order applied to the goods. Often, the latter happens when suppliers assure the buyer that merchandise is either outside the scope of the order or from a source other than the subject country. Unfortunately, suppliers may be uninformed on the scope of the order, too happy to falsely state the origin of the product, or willing to misrepresent that it is otherwise outside the scope of an order. An unwary importer who ends up receiving a rate advance of 200%, for example, may be in for a world of financial and legal trouble.

Moreover, the scope of orders is becoming increasingly complex. The cases involving aluminum extrusions, tires, and solar products are good examples of complicated case scopes.

As a result, I am spending increasing time on scope and related questions for importer clients. My assumption is that readers of this blog are also seeing more of these issues arise. Consequently, I plan to address more of these cases here. I will not be getting into the weeds of determining subsidy and margin rates. But, to the extent the application of an antidumping or duty order impacts import compliance, I will make more of an effort to note it here.

That said, I give you Kyocera Solar, Inc. v. United States International Trade Commission. This case from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit involves the antidumping and countervailing duty orders on Certain Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaic Products from The People's Republic of China and Taiwan. A common strategy for compliant importers facing the imposition of AD or CV duties is to re-source the product from a country not covered by the order. That can be a successful way to mitigate the impact of the order.

The problem for Kyocera in this case is that the Commerce Department defined the scope of the investigation as covering cells and modules produced in Taiwan and modules "completed or partially manufactured" in other countries from cells produced in Taiwan. Kyocera was importing solar modules from Mexico that incorporate solar cells from Taiwan.

Separate and apart from this case, Kyocera is challenging the scope of the order as it applies to its imports from Mexico. Leave that aside for now. In this case, Kyocera raises the more interesting question of whether the International Trade Commission was required to treat the source of these products as Mexico or as Taiwan for purposes of its investigation of possible injury to the domestic industry.

The root of this question is 19 USC 1671d(b) (for countervailing duties) and 1673d(b) (for antidumping duties), which require that the ITC terminate an investigation if it determines that "imports of the subject merchandise are negligible . . . ." Negligible is defined in 19 USC 1677(24) as follows (with exceptions and details omitted here):

imports from a country of merchandise corresponding to a domestic like product identified by the Commission are “negligible” if such imports account for less than 3 percent of the volume of all such merchandise imported into the United States . . . .
The issue here is the meaning of "a country." According to Kyocera, Mexico is "a country" and is, therefore, entitled to its own negligibility test. Presumably, its exports would be less than the 3% threshold and, therefore, excluded from the order.

The International Trade Commission and the Court of International Trade both rejected that argument. Now, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has upheld the CIT. According to the Court of Appeals, the negligibility test is applied to the subject merchandise. Here, the order defines the scope as including cells from Taiwan finished into modules in other countries. Accordingly, the Kyocera products that include cells from Taiwan are still products of Taiwan even though finished in Mexico. Consequently, products finished in Mexico are not entitled to a separate negligibility analysis.

What is the lesson for importers? First and foremost, understand that scope is more than just the title of the Federal Register Notice. The scope of the order may, as it did here, encompass downstream or upstream products including products finished in other countries. When that is the case, it is not enough to just move finishing operations to another country. That will not necessarily remove the product from scope and might end up causing additional issues if the effort is seen as either evasion or circumvention.

Finally, as long as I am thinking about these things, keep in mind that HTSUS classification is not a reliable test for whether or not a product is in scope. Every order states that classification is provided for convenience, and that the description of the merchandise controls. The fact that an item is not flagged in ACE or elsewhere as within the scope of an order does not mean it cannot actually be within the scope of the order.

More to follow on this and related issues.


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