Irwin Tools: Pliers are Still Pliers


Remember the Irwin Tools Case? That case considered whether certain locking pliers were properly classified as wrenches or as either pliers or clamps. The Court of International Trade held that the plaintiff had overcome the presumption that Customs correctly classified the pliers as wrenches. But, because Irwin had not moved for summary judgment, the Court could not give a final classification. Subsequently, Irwin moved for summary judgment and the government moved for reconsideration of the original decision. If you have not read my original post on this case, please do so.

The CIT has now handed Irwin a complete victory. The gist of the prior ruling is that a wrench has a head that fits snugly over or around the head of a fastener and a single handle that can be turned to apply torque. Pliers, on the other hand, have two handles and two jaws that pivot and must be squeezed to grasp an object. A clamp has a frame of some kind and two opposing surfaces that can be adjusted by a screw, lever, or similar device to hold an object firmly in place.

A motion to reconsider a prior judgment is directed to the discretion of the Court. The Court will grant a motion to reconsider when it finds that justice requires it to do so. Factors that may indicate justice requires reconsideration include a significant change in the controlling law or reason to believe that the court patently misunderstood the issues presented. A simple disagreement with the outcome will not do it. That was the case here and the judge denied the motion.

So where do we classify locking pliers? No surprisingly, as pliers. All of the locking pliers have two handles and two jaws that pivot relative to one another. This allows the user to squeeze the handles to close the jaws around an object to manipulate it.

The Court also found that the evidence before it did not establish that the locking pliers were classifiable as clamps. Rather than be tightened with a screw, lever or thumb nut, the locking pliers are closed by squeezing the handles. Further, the configuration of the two handles and a pivot is distinct from clamps.

Reading somewhat between the lines and possibly due to my own involvement with this issue, it strikes me that the government’s main argument was that this issue had already been decided. The CIT addressed this issue in 1983 in a case called Associated Consumers v. UnitedStates, 5 CIT 148, 565 F. Supp. 1044. Associated Consumers was affirmed by the Federal Circuit in a non-precedential decision without an opinion. Of course, the 1983 case was under the old Tariff Schedule of the United States. Furthermore, the decision of one CIT judge is not binding on another judge subsequently looking at the issue. The Court, after reviewing the physical nature of the various tools at issue and the standard definitions of pliers determined that these locking pliers are properly classified as pliers.

There is a bit of side issue in this case about use. Does the word “wrench” suggest a particular use, such as turning a nut or bolt? Does the word “clamp” imply a usage? Maybe. But, that was all addressed in the prior Irwin decision and the Court saw no reason to revisit it now.
Anyone curious about all the bankruptcy issues floating around? I'm on it. I'll try to get to that this week.

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