Customs Outsmarts Itself – Possibly – In Section 592 Penalty Case

Having sought civil Customs penalties against an importer under Section 592 of the Tariff Act on grounds of fraud, the government could not, in suing to recover those penalties in the United States Court of International Trade, allege in the alternative that the violations occurred by means of gross-negligence or negligence, the Court recently held.  The decision at least raises the possibility that the government may have outsmarted itself in pursuing the penalty.

The defendant in United States v. Toth, Slip Op. 06-61 (June 20, 2016) was charged with evading antidumping duties on imported crawfish tail meat by misclassifying it as langostino. Customs brought administrative proceedings against the defendant and his company under Section 592 of the Tariff Act of 1930, as amended [19 U.S.C. §1592], charging them with evading duties by means of fraud. After administrative proceedings failed to produce a result, the government brought suit to collect the Section 592 penalties, charging fraud, and in the alternative, alleging that the violations occurred by means of gross negligence, or simple negligence.

The defendants moved to dismiss the counts of the complaint claiming gross negligence and negligence, citing the Federal Circuit’s 2015 decision in United States v. Nitek Electronics, Inc. In Nitek, the Federal Circuit ruled, in a surprising but welcome decision for importers, that Customs was limited, in bringing suit, to pursuing penalties for the level of culpability charged administratively. Since the government had charged Toth with fraud administratively, and since Toth’s defense before the agency had been addressed to a fraud charge, Customs was limited to pursuing judicial relief based on the fraud allegations. The agency had not exhausted administrative remedies as to gross negligence or negligence claims.

The Court’s ruling in the Toth case left the government with a heavy burden to meet in order to collect a penalty.

Section 592 of the Tariff Act provides for the imposition of civil penalties on persons who, by means of fraud, gross negligence or negligence, enter or attempt to enter merchandise into the United States by means of false and material statements or acts, or by means of material omissions. The maximum penalty depends on the loss of revenue and the level of culpability. In cases of simple negligence, the maximum penalty is twice the loss of revenue; in gross negligence cases, four times the loss of revenue; and in cases of fraud, an amount equal to the domestic value of the merchandise concerned. In no case, however, may a Section 592 civil penalty exceed the domestic value of the merchandise.

In cases to collect a Section 592 penalty, the Court of International Trade does not simply enforce the agency’s claim. Instead, it makes findings de novo, on the basis of the record before the court, concerning whether the violation and claimed level of culpability has been proven, and what, if anything, the amount of the penalty should be.

In addition to a sliding scale of penalties, Section 592 also provides different allocations of the burden of proof in CIT cases to collect a penalty. Where simple negligence is alleged, the government need only establish the facts claimed to constitute the violation; the burden rests on the person charged to show that the violation did not result from negligence – a failure to use the level of care expected of a reasonably prudent person.  In cases claiming gross negligence – a “wanton disregard” for one’s obligations under the Customs laws – the government has the burden of proving the violation, and the gross negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.

Fraud cases confront the government with the most difficult road to secure a penalty. Fraud claims must generally be pleaded “with particularity”, and the government bears the burden of proving the fraud through “clear and convincing evidence”.

Following the CIT’s Toth decision, the government now faces the hefty burden of pleading and proving fraud. It runs the risk that, if the evidence only shows a grossly negligent violation, it will walk away empty-handed. It might be unable to recover any penalties, nor establish the predicate for forcing to importer to repay any “withheld duties”.

Typically, the government’s motivation for charging fraud is to seek a higher penalty, especially in cases where the conduct is egregious, or undermines an important trade policy, such as enforcement of antidumping orders. But the “greater culpability = higher penalty” rationale does not always hold true in cases involving antidumping duties, which are frequently set at 100% ad valorem or higher.  When a duty rate is 100%, for example, the greatest penalty which could be collected under Section 592 is one time the loss of revenue – less than the maximum penalty for cases arising out of simple negligence.  So charging a greater level of culpability in such cases would not bring the government a higher penalty.

The government might therefore have outsmarted itself in the Toth case – charging a higher level of culpability and assuming a greater burden of proof than it might have needed to in order to secure the maximum penalty and recovery of withheld duties.

Perhaps the government will carry the day with its fraud charge in the Toth case. Had the government merely charged simple negligence, they might have been exposed to a defense of “it wasn’t negligence, it was intentional fraud”, but this seems unlikely. But facing a higher burden of proof – and with a claim of misclassification, which is often a matter of negligence – the government has exposed itself to the possibility that the defendant in Toth might walk away scot-free.

Apparently realizing this possibility, the government asked the Court to remand the Toth case to Customs, presumably so the agency could conduct administrative proceedings to charge a penalty at a lesser level of negligence or gross negligence. Saying the request “showed great chutzpah”, the court denied the request, pointing out that there was no final agency decision respecting negligence to remand.

Before the Federal Circuit’s Nitek decision, the government assumed it could sue for penalties, asserting the different levels of culpability in the alternative. That is no longer the case, and as a consequence, the stakes for the government to charge a violator carefully have increased dramatically.