Lock Washers: Scope and Suspension

Here, we continue our dive into the intersection of customs and trade law. The Court of International Trade decision in United Steels and Fasteners, Inc. v. United States, raises interesting issues about how scope decisions from the Department of Commerce impact customs entries awaiting liquidation. If you are a traditional customs compliance professional who does not often delve into trade questions, buckle up. This will be bumpy.

This case involves the antidumping duty order on Helical Spring Lock Washers from China. The scope of this particular order covers:

circular washers of carbon steel, of carbon alloy steel, or of stainless steel, heat-treated or non-heat-treated, plated or non-plated, with ends that are off-line. HSLWs are designed to: 1) function as a spring to compensate for developed looseness between the component parts of a fastened assembly; 2) distribute the load over a larger area for screw or bolts; and 3) provide a hardened bearing surface. The scope does not include internal or external tooth washers, nor does it include spring lock washers made of other metals, such as copper. The lock washers subject to this investigation are currently classifiable under subheading 7318.21.0000 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS). Although the HTSUS subheadings are provided for convenience and customs purposes, our written description of the scope of this investigation is dispositive.
The order was first published in 1993.

In 2013, American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association ("AREMA") submitted a scope clarification request to Commerce concerning a specialized type of washer made to its own standards. These washers have modest helicality, a square or rectangular cross section, do not meet the ASME standards referenced in the ITC Report in this case, are specifically for railway use, and (among other things) are 50% to 130% thicker than typical helical spring lock washers. Shakeproof Assembly, the petitioner in the original dumping case and a defendant intervenor in the CIT, responded to the scope request arguing that the washers are within the scope of the order and, furthermore, requesting that Commerce instruct Customs to suspend liquidations and request cash deposits for all unliquidated entries back to the start of the administrative review.

Commerce ultimately held that the washers are within the scope of the order. Commerce also ordered Customs to retroactively suspend liquidations back to the date of the order.

This raises two obvious questions. First, is Commerce right about the scope? Second, should Customs have retroactively suspended liquidations?

The Scope Part

Petitioners and Commerce cannot always specify exactly what merchandise comes within the scope of an antidumping (or countervailing duty) order. Orders tend to specify some products and include general terms to catch similar products. When an interested party needs certainty about a product, it may apply to Commerce for a scope clarification under 19 CFR 351.225. In some cases, Commerce will decide the scope issue on the basis of the language of the order under 19 CFR 351.225(d) without commencing a formal inquiry. If that is not possible, Commerce can initiate a formal scope inquiry under 19 CFR 351.225(e).

If an interested party disagrees with the scope determination, it can challenge the decision in the Court of International Trade. The Court will uphold a scope determination that is supported by substantial evidence on the record. That is a highly deferential standard that means the Court may have to uphold a Commerce Department decision even if the judge disagrees with the result. Generally, these decisions can only be overturned where there is a lack of evidence in the administrative record to support them.

Commerce found that the AREMA washers are helical spring lock washers and that the distinguishing characteristics were not sufficient to remove them from the scope of the order. According to Commerce, the design and function of the AREMA washers minimalize helicality [Note: that is a phrase to consider] but did not strip them of their helical function. Commerce was helped in this regard by language in the petition noting that a "significant portion of the larger sizes [of helical spring lock washers] are used for installation of railroad tracks." That seems to be directly addressed at AREMA's product.

Plaintiff raised a number of arguments to show that Commerce's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. First, the fact that these washers are made to AREMA standards, rather than the more common ASME standard. This was not sufficient given that the administrative record shows no requirement that in-scope washers be made to any industry specification. Similarly, the fact that helical spring lock washers generally have a trapezoidal cross-section is not an exclusion of washers with other cross-sections. The Court also found that record evidence supports Commerce's finding that the unique thickness-to-diameter ratio of the AREMA washers did not remove them from the order. In the end, the Court rejected Plaintiff's arguments and found that Commerce's determination was based on substantial evidence in the record. So, the AREMA washers are in scope.

The Liquidation Part

To a degree, that is all background to the second question. To my mind, this is the more interesting part.

Having found the washers to be in scope, Commerce instructed Customs to suspend liquidation of unliquidated entries of AREMA washers as far back as 1993, when the order was first entered. As a practical matter, that means newish entries that have not liquidated and entries subject to an existing injunction. According to the Court, this means entries between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2013. If this retroactive application of the scope determination is correct, this is the kind of unanticipated potential liability that keeps importers awake at night.

Under the Commerce regulations, specifically 19 CFR 351.225(l)(3), if products are found to be within the scope of the order, Commerce is to instruct Customs to suspend liquidation and to require a cash deposit of estimated duties, "for each unliquidated entry of the product entered, or withdrawn from warehouse, for consumption on or after the date of initiation of the scope of inquiry." In this instance, there was no formal scope inquiry initiated under § 351.225(3). Commerce decided the issue on its own under § 351.225(d). According to Commerce, that means the regulation does not address this exact fact pattern and Commerce can instruct Customs to suspend liquidation back to the date of the order.

The CIT disagreed. First, the history of the regulation makes it clear that suspension of liquidation is a serious step that can have significant consequences for importers and foreign exporters and producers. But, the domestic industry is entitled to the protection of the order for all in-scope merchandise. To balance these interests, Commerce set the date of potential suspension as the date of initiation of the scope inquiry. Thus, while not addressing this circumstance, it is clear that Commerce intended the potential period of subject entries to be limited. Looking to a prior CIT decision, the Court found that Commerce is limited in its authority to request the suspension of duties, regardless of the formality of the proceeding. The Court of Appeals similarly limited Commerce's authority in scope inquiries to after the date of initiation. Without these limits, Commerce would always be able to request suspension retroactive to the date of the order simply by choosing to forgo a formal scope inquiry under 351.225(e) in favor of an informal proceeding under 351.225(d).

Commerce made a good argument that its decision in this scope case was the equivalent of a finding that the AREMA lock washers were always within the scope of the order. By limiting the ability of Commerce to request suspension back to the date of the order, the Court is allowing in-scope merchandise to escape the lawful order. That is true. But, the Court noted, Customs had not identified these products as in-scope. The importer saw the question as uncertain and, therefore, took the correct step of seeking a scope clarification. Under these circumstances, the importer is entitled to rely on Customs' treatment and not have liquidations suspended and cash deposits collected until after the (admittedly informal) scope inquiry was commenced. The exact timing of which remains to be seen. The Court remanded to Commerce to issue new instructions consistent with this decision.

This is a good result for importers of merchandise that is found to be within the scope of an order after entry. The potential liability for antidumping and presumably countervailing duties is limited to unliquidated entries made on or after the date of the scope inquiry. But, do not read too much into that. This is not a Customs penalty case. In theory, Customs can still find that the importer's failure to deposit dumping duties was the result of negligence, gross negligence, or fraud and impose a penalty in addition to collecting duties. Given that customs penalty can be two times the amount of the duties owed for simple negligence, it is possible that a customs penalty will fair outstrip the unpaid duties to be owed as a result of a properly timed suspension of liquidation. On the other hand, if the importer exercised reasonable care (and can prove it), then liquidated entries are final and no penalty would be appropriate.


Josh said…
Imposing a penalty based on past imports of merchandise determined to be within the scope years after the imports would be unconscionable. The importer's scope request, required in the first place by an ambiguous AD order, should itself be considered evidence of reasonable care. Commerce and the domestic industry draft these Orders for the most part as they please. For Customs to impose a penalty on an importer simply trying to do the right thing would take a lot of chutzpah.

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