In a recent Opinion, the United States Court of International Trade denied cross motions for summary judgment filed by Ziploc bag producer S.C. Johnson & Son (“S.C. Johnson”) and the U.S. government which sought competing classifications for the well-known plastic bags.

S.C. Johnson argued that the 6 1/2 inch by 5 7/8 inch version of its polyethylene zipper-sealed bags should be classified under HTSUS Subheading 3924.90.56 covering “tableware, kitchenware, other household articles and hygienic or toilet articles, of plastics: other: other” which can be imported duty free. The government asserted that the bags were properly classified under Subheading 3923.21.00 covering: “articles for the conveyance or packing of goods, of plastics; stoppers, lids, caps, and other closures, of plastics: sacks and bags (including cones): of polymers of ethylene” which would be subject to a 3% ad valorem duty.

The CIT found that neither party had presented sufficient undisputed factual support for their proposed classification.  The CIT set forth its two-part classification analysis. First, determining the legal question of the proper meaning of the terms of the tariff provisions and; second, determining the factual question of whether the product at issue falls within that provision.

Accordingly, the CIT examined the terms definitions of the terms “conveyance” and “packing” in defining the scope of Heading 3923 and determined that the principal use of that provision is “goods of plastic used to carry or to transport other goods of any kind.” The CIT also examined the words”household” and “article” which a central terms under Heading 3924 and determined that the heading encompasses “plastic goods of or relating to the house or household.”

Having dispensed with the first step in its analysis — determining the proper meaning of the prospective tariff provisions — the CIT found that it could not go further because issues of fact remained as to under which heading the bags fell.  Specifically, while acknowledging that the physical characteristics of the bags and customers uses and expectations with respect to the bags were uncontested, the CIT found that neither party had provided sufficient undisputed facts to permit a full analysis under the factors set forth in Carborundum.

Under Carborundum, the Court looks at factors including: [1] use in the same manner as merchandise which defines the class; [2] the general physical characteristics of the merchandise; [3] the economic practicality of so using the import; [4] the expectation of the ultimate purchasers; [5] the channels of trade in which the merchandise moves; [6] the environment of the sale, such as accompanying accessories and the manner in which the merchandise is advertised and displayed; and [7] the recognition in the trade of this use.

Therefore, with the proper definition of each proposed heading now established, the parties must move forward to trial to finally determine the proper classification of the bags and the resulting tariff.

 

 

 

In a recent opinion, the US Court of International Trade (CIT) found that certain fabric covered pool floats should be classified as plastics — not textiles — for tariff purposes.  Despite the textile elements of the floats, the sequential application of the General Rules of Interpretation led the CIT to find that the air-filled plastic bladder which allowed the product to float in water gave the floats their “essential character.”

The products at issue are floats for a swimming pool which a generally designed with an outer perimeter containing a plastic bladder which is covered with fabric.  Inside the perimeter is a fabric mesh which “suspends” the user’s body at or just below the water’s surface.  The floats also contain a flexible steel rod around the perimeter which allowed the floats to be folded neatly for storage and then “sprung” into a usable position. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had classified the floats as textiles under subheading 6307.90.98 for “[o]ther made up articles, including dress patters: Other: Other” and subject to a 7% duty.  The producer of the floats asserted that the products should be classified under subheading 3926.90.75 for “[o]ther articles of plastics and articles of other materials of headings 3901 to 3914: Other: Pneumatic mattresses and other inflatable articles, not elsewhere specified or included” and subject to 4.2% duty.

At the core of the dispute was the intersection of the textile and plastic elements of the the products. The CIT began its analysis under General Rule of Interpretation (GRI) 1 and determined that neither proposed heading, 6307 or 3926, fully described the floats which contained significant components of both textile and plastic.  CBP argued that, like life jackets which are classified as textiles, the were no separate components to the textile floats which required evaluation beyond GRI 1. Nevertheless, the Court found the textile and plastic components to be distinct and, therefore, pursuant to GRI 2, the mixed-material products were to be evaluated in accordance with GRI 3. Under GRI 3(b), if a material or component of the imparts the “essential character” of the good, then product should be classified based on that defining material or component.

CBP argued that the product was entirely covered in textiles and, significantly, without the textile mesh which suspends the user, the float would not function as intended.  The CIT, however, determined that the air-filled plastic bladders around the perimeter where the component which gave the floats their essential character.  As the Court found, even if one conceded that the mesh component is necessary for proper function, without the bladders, the mesh would lack support to help the user float. Accordingly, the CIT determined that heading 3926 was the correct heading.

In a separate part of its opinion, the CIT declined to classify certain floats designed for babies as general exercise equipment in part because the packaging lauded the products ability to keep babies “comfortable and happy.”

 

In a recent opinion, the Court of International Trade upheld the determination by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that certain doorknobs imported by home-improvement retailer Home Depot are properly classified as locks and subject to a higher duty than other doorknobs.

In essence, the dispute came down to a question of whether a doorknob that locks is (i) a doorknob or (ii) a lock.

Doorknobs are classified heading 8302 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS) which covers “[b]ase metal mountings, fittings and similar articles suitable for . . . doors . . . .”  The relevant Explanatory Notes clarify that heading 8302  “covers general purpose classes of base metal accessory fittings and mountings, such as are used on furniture, doors, windows, coachwork, etc”  and that the term “[m]ountings, fittings and similar articles suitable for buildings” includes “handles and knobs for doors, including those for locks and latches.” Doorknobs classified under heading 8302 are subject to 3.9% duty.

Locks, on the other hand, are classified under HTSUS heading 8301 which covers “[p]adlocks and locks (key, combination or electrically operated), of base metal.” Locks classified under heading 8301 are subject to a 5.7% duty.

Home Depot argued that its products, doorknob sets consisting of exterior and interior doorknobs with trim, a latch component, strike plate, keys, and installation hardware, were plainly doorknobs under heading 8302.  Home Depot argued that the products were an “improved” doorknob with a lock function. CBP argued that products were, first and foremost, locks to secure an exterior door, as evidenced by the “key-operated” nature of the products.  The Court agreed with CBP, finding that the doorknobs were part of the lock, specifically, they were the lever used to open the lock.  The Court also cited Home Depot’s testing and advertising of the knobs as locks.  The Court clarified that doorknobs without this locking function are still properly classified under heading 8302.

One take away from the Court’s decision was its rejection of Home Depot’s argument that the products at issue were similar to other knobs that had been classified under heading 8302.  The Court reiterated that HTSUS does not call for a comparison of articles under a giving heading, but rather that each article is to be compared to the wording of the tariff provisions.  As advocacy to CBP and the Court is often by done by analogy to similar articles, it is important to always remain focused on the language of the tariff provision itself.

In a recent decision, the Court of International Trade shot down an importer’s argument that its Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed serve ware and dinnerware should be exempt from duties as instruments of “specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations.”

Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo

Subheading 9817.95.01 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (“HTSUS”) provides that no duty is to be assessed for: “[u]tilitarian articles of a kind used in the home in the performance of specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations for religious or cultural holidays, or religious festive occasions, such as Seder plates, blessing cups, menorahs or kinaras.”

The crux of importer, WWRD US LLC’s, argument was that the definition of “cultural ritual” was sufficiently broad so as to include the traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  The importer put forth a variety of definitions of the term “ritual”, including Merriam Websters’s definition of “a customarily repeated often formal act or series of acts.”

Judge Mark A. Barnett, however, derived the Court’s understanding of the scope of the subheading from the exemplars included therein.  While Judge Barnett did not question the cultural significance of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, his opinion focused on the subheading’s requirement of “specific” rituals.  The exemplars, the Seder plate used during Passover, the menorah used during Hanukkah, and the kinara used during Kwanzaa, involved specific sequential rituals, not merely the observance of a recurring event such as Thanksgiving of Christmas dinner.

Ultimately, the ITC found that US Customs and Border Protection’s classifications and resulting duty rates, ranging between 3% and 6%, were proper.  While the importer’s creative classification argument was unsuccessful in this case, a zealous advocate can make a significant difference in the duties, and the bottom line, of any import transaction.

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Copyright: vectora / 123RF Stock Photo

In U.S. v. Nitek Electronics, Inc., the Federal Circuit constrained the Department of Justice’s ability to seek import penalties based on a culpability level different than the level alleged by the Customs and Border Protection during the administrative penalty process.

Generally, when pursing penalties for lost import duties due to misclassification of goods under 19 U.S.C. § 1592, the Government must demonstrate a material false statement or omission amounting to fraud, gross negligence, or negligence.  Based on the level of culpability alleged by the Government, the burden of proof for the Government shifts significantly from clear and convincing evidence for fraud, proving the elements for gross negligence, and the mere burden of proving the act or admission (with the burden shifting the the importer to show that the act was not negligent) under a negligence theory.

In Nitek, the importer of gas valves disputed the CBP’s allegations of grossly negligent conduct during the course of the administrative penalty proceeding.  The matter was subsequently referred to the DOJ which pursued an enforcement action based on a negligence theory.  The Court of International Trade held that the  DOJ could not pursue penalties against an importer based on a different level of culpability than the level alleged by the CBP during the administrative proceeding.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the Court of International Trade’s decision, finding that the Government had not exhausted administrative remedies when it pursued an ‘independent’ claim based on negligence which was not present in the administrative proceeding.

Those close to the case are hailing the decision as a significant victory for importers who, in the past, have been unfairly forced to defend penalty actions brought under multiple theories by multiple agencies.  As the CBP is now likely to take additional care when investigating and selecting the theory which the government will pursue during the administrative proceeding, mounting a robust defense from the very outset of any administrative action is now an absolute imperative for importers.