NO CONFERENCE? NO SECTION 592 PENALTY, COURT SAYS

Customs’ failure to provide an importer with a requested in-person conference to discuss a penalty claim being imposed under Section 592 of the Tariff Act invalidates the agency’s $4.5 million claim for penalties and withheld duties, according to recent decision of the United States Court of International Trade.

In United States v. Aegis Sec. Ins. Co, Slip Op. 18-29 (March 26th, 2018), Customs sued Tricots Liesse 1983 Inc., a Montreal area fabric producer, for withheld duties and penalties under Section 592. Tricots had made a “prior disclosure” to CBP that some fabric it imported into the United States did not qualify as “originating” goods, entitled to duty free entry under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, Tricots claimed that the products did qualify for duty free entry under Tariff Preference Level (TPL) programs. The company tendered merchandise processing fees to Customs, but took the position that no duties had been underpaid or withheld.

Customs rejected the importer’s tender, asserting that a claim for TPL treatment had to be made prior to the time the import entries were liquidated, and told Tricots Liesse that it would need to pay withheld duties to perfect its prior disclosure and avoid the imposition of penalties. Tricots continued to argue that no loss of revenue had occurred. After efforts to resolve the matter with an offer in compromise failed, Customs sued the company for Section 592 withheld duties and penalties. This case was consolidated with another, related, case, previously brought to recover withheld duties from Tricots’ Customs bond surety.

Tricots moved to dismiss the Government’s complaint for failure to state a claim. Tricots argued that it had requested an in-person conference with Customs officials to discuss the penalty claim, and had not received it. Since the Customs regulations gave the importer the right to such a conference, Tricots claimed, the government by failing to provide the conference, had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.

The Court of International Trade agreed. After holding that telephone calls between Tricots officials and Customs officers did not constitute the requested and required conference, Senior Judge Richard Eaton held that Customs had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies which were necessary to undertake in order to perfect its cause of action. The legislative history to Section 592, he held, provided importers with the right to a hearing, which was an expected part of the process. Finding the oral conference to be an essential part of the section 592 administrative process, and having determined that CBP failed to exhaust this remedy, the Court held that the government had failed to state a cause of action, and dismissed the government’s penalty case.   The court further held that the defendant did not need to show substantial prejudice to itself to secure the dismissal.

The case is a surprising one, and a pleasant surprise for importers. The decision will undoubtedly be appealed by the government to the Federal Circuit in an  appeal that will bear watching.