Importer Fined $7.5 Million for Declaring Incorrect "Provisional" Customs Values

In a recent case, United States v. Inn Foods, Inc., CIT Slip Op. 07-142 (September 25, 2007), the Court of International Trade penalized Inn Foods, Inc. for fraudulently declaring the value of imported frozen food from Mexico to the U.S. using "provisional" invoice values, rather than the final value paid for the goods. The case involved the importation of frozen produce into the United States by Inn Foods and Seaveg, a related Cayman Islands corporation, from six Mexican growers between 1987 to 1990.

Based on the facts found at trial, Seaveg would negotiate the initial price for the produce with the Mexican growers by telephone and then, under an agreement with its suppliers, receive an invoice at 70% of the negotiated price, with the understanding that the remaining 30% would be paid within 60 days of delivery into storage after certain adjustments were made. At the time of entry, the invoice at 70% of the true sales price was declared value to Customs. However, neither Inn Foods, Seaveg, nor the customs broker informed Customs that the invoice values declared at the time of entry were "provisional."

Firstly, the court found that Inn Foods was responsible for all of the liabilities despite the fact that Seaveg and Inn Foods were incorporated as two separate entities because it found that Seaveg was an alter ego or alias of its sister subsidiary Inn Foods. 

Secondly, the court found that Inn Foods' conduct was fraudulent as Customs had proved that Inn Foods had deliberately introduced merchandise into the commerce of the United States by means of material false statements with the intent to defraud the revenue or otherwise violate the laws of the United States. Although Inn Foods and Seaveg argued that there was no evidence adduced at trial that indicates that "Inn Foods knew or understood the legal effect of post-importation price adjustments to the price actually paid or payable to the grower/packers based on the U.S. resale prices," the court found the argument to needlessly confuse the crux of the wrongdoing. The court stated that the wrongdoing is that:


Inn Foods knew that (1) the prices on the subject entries were significantly undervalued, (2) these undervaluations caused a commensurate reduction in lawful Customs duties owed and (3) there was no plan or intention to correct these undervaluations. . . . Therefore, while Inn Foods correctly states that "there is nothing sinister, per se, about provisional pricing agreements," it is not the provisional pricing agreement here that is at issue, but the underlying undervaluation scheme which the provisional pricing agreements only play a part.

Customs sought $624,602.55 in unpaid duties and merchandise processing fees and civil penalties in the amount of $15,319,513.35 if Inn Foods' conduct was found to be fraudulent. In determining the penalty to be assessed, the court noted that for violations of fraud, the maximum penalty is the domestic value of the merchandise with no set minimum penalty and that the court possesses the discretion to determine a penalty within the parameters of the statute. After considering a number of factors as set forth in United States v. Complex Machine Works Co., 23 CIT 942, 949-50, 83 F. Supp. 2d 1307, 1315 (1999), the court ordered that Inn Foods pay $624,602.55 for unpaid duties plus pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, and civil penalties in the amount of $7,500,000.00, plus costs and fees and interest from the date of judgment.

This case represents a cautionary tale for importers who use any type of provisional invoices, including those importers who true-up customs valuations at some point after entry due to the additions to value, such as assists, royalties, buying commissions, etc. Importers have a continuing obligation to review the correctness of information contained in invoices used as entry documents, and to declare to Customs the true and correct value of the goods at the time of entry. See 19 U.S.C. §§ 1484 and 1485. Accordingly, importers should maintain proactive internal controls over their Customs valuation and understand the impact of the full financial transaction for imported goods, including any possible additions to value. 

If an intercompany or transfer price is declared as the customs value of an imported good, an importer should assess whether the intercompany or transfer price satisfies the customs valuation statute independent of the acceptability of the price for tax purposes. See Customs' Informed Compliance Publication, Determining the Acceptability of Transaction Value for Related Party Transactions. In addition, importers who utilize a customs value that must be adjusted subsequent to entry should consider joining Customs' Reconciliation program. This program allows importers to declare estimated customs values and subsequently adjust those values to final values and pay or be refunded any additional duties or fees owed.

Finally, an importer may be able to limit its liabilities for valuation and other errors it discovers on its own by filing a prior disclosure with Customs. By filing a prior disclosure, an importer voluntarily discloses to Customs the factual circumstances of a violation of the customs statute and tenders any duties and fees owing. If the prior disclosure is done properly, the importer's liability for penalties can be reduced to the interest owed, unless fraud is found.

Global Trade Expertise can assist with an importer in assessing the validity of their customs valuations, joining CBP's Reconciliation program, and/or filing a valid prior disclosure with CBP. Please contact us for assistance.