Nowlan v Nowlan, 2021 WL 2379815 ( W.D. Virginia, 2021)
[Canada] [Habitual residence ] [Petition granted] [Grave risk of harm].
In Alvarez Romero v Gajardo Bahamonde, --- Fed.Appx. ----, 2021 WL 2104855 ( Eleventh Circuit, 2021) Rodrigo Andres Alvarez Romero appealed the district court’s denial of his petition for return of his minor children to Chile. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
ABB and PDCB were Alvarez Romero and Maria Eugenia Gajardo Bahamonde’s minor daughters. ABB was born in 2006 and PDCB was born in 2013. Alvarez Romero and Gajardo Bahamonde were citizens of Chile and had never been married. Their children were born in Chile. Gajardo Bahamonde, ABB, and Mauricio Loyola (Gajardo Bahamonde’s son from a prior relationship) testified that Alvarez Romero frequently abused Gajardo Bahamonde emotionally and physically, including beating her so severely she had a miscarriage. Because ABB and PDCB witnessed the abuse, the Chilean Family Court ordered them to undergo mental health treatment. In the treatment program, both children were diagnosed with “mild psycho-affective damage” due to the abuse they saw their father inflict on their mother. This abuse included an incident when Alvarez Romero broke her nose and another when he knocked her unconscious while the children were lying beside her in bed. Loyola testified that Alvarez Romero was often verbally and physically abusive to Gajardo Bahamonde in front of the children. He said that Alvarez Romero would hit his mother, call her “a whore,” and say she was worth less than him because “he was an engineer and she was nothing.” Loyola witnessed one occasion when Alvarez Romero beat Gajardo Bahamonde so severely that he broke her ribs. Loyola recounted at least one incident where ABB witnessed Alvarez Romero severely beat their mother. And both daughters often heard their father verbally abuse their mother. Alvarez Romero would beat Loyola as well, including by hitting him with a belt. ABB witnessed several other incidents, including one when Alvarez Romero almost ran into ABB while trying to hit her mother. ABB also described Alvarez Romero’s disturbing behavior toward ABB and PDCB. For example, he forced ABB to stay up for hours past her bedtime as punishment for doing poorly on a school assignment; he locked PDCB in the car while shopping when she wouldn’t stop crying that she wanted her mother; and he took the children with him to buy drugs (which he used in their presence) and drove with the children while under the influence. Alvarez Romero denied all allegations of abuse. The district court found Alvarez Romero’s claims that he never abused the mother of his children and that she falsified the allegations of abuse not to be credible.
Following the separation, Gajardo Bahamonde lived with the children in abject poverty. In December 2017, Alvarez Romero told Gajardo Bahamonde he wanted to take the children to visit his mother in the United States, during which time they would also have the opportunity to visit Disney World. Gajardo Bahamonde consented to the trip, based on her belief that the children would be under the care of their grandmother. She signed a travel authorization form allowing the children to travel to the United States from December 2017 to March 2018.
Gajardo Bahamonde testified that in January 2018, Alvarez Romero told her he would not be returning the children to Chile and that if she ever wanted to see them again, she would have to come join them in the United States. Alvarez Romero denied ever saying this. But that month, he got a full-time job in the United States, bought a car, and enrolled ABB in school and PDCB in daycare. After she learned that Alvarez Romero enrolled the daughters in school and daycare in the United States, Gajardo Bahamonde left her job in Chile and sold possessions in order to pay for a ticket to travel to Alvarez Romero’s mother’s home in Florida in February 2018 to be with the children. Two months later, Gajardo Bahamonde moved out and took PDCB with her because, she said, Alvarez Romero began sexually harassing her and verbally and physically abusing her in front of the children. ABB testified that she saw Alvarez Romero abuse Gajardo Bahamonde while she was living with them in Florida. Gajardo Bahamonde also described an incident when Alvarez Romero pushed her while she was at work, prompting a co-worker to call the police. Gajardo Bahamonde’s testimony about that incident is supported by a police report. Gajardo Bahamonde filed for a domestic violence protection order in Florida after that incident. Initially, ABB stayed with her grandmother and father. But after her grandmother went back to Chile, ABB’s living situation worsened. ABB testified that she started missing a lot of school, there was almost no furniture in the home they stayed in, she was alone in the home for most of the day, and was left without food or a phone. Her mother came and took ABB to live with her after ABB called upset that she was stuck alone in the house with no food while Alvarez Romero was at work. The Florida court scheduled two hearings about Gajardo Bahamonde’s petition for a protective order. Alvarez Romero did not appear and instead returned to Chile. After Alvarez Romero failed to appear at the first hearing and returned to Chile, Gajardo Bahamonde moved to Georgia. The petition was dismissed for failure to appear. Gajardo Bahamonde did not further pursue the protective order after Alvarez Romero left the United States because she knew he could not return. When Alvarez Romero returned to Chile, he took the children’s passports with him. Initially, he remained in contact with ABB. They spoke about planning a trip for the children to return to Chile. Gajardo Bahamonde repeatedly asked Alvarez Romero to return the passports but he never did. Gajardo Bahamonde and the children moved to Georgia in November 2018. Since then, the children had lived in one home and attended the appropriate schools. In June 2020, Alvarez Romero filed an ICARA petition, claiming that, as of November 2018, Gajardo Bahamonde wrongfully retained the couple’s two minor children, ABB and PDCB, in the United States, at the time 14 and 7 years old, respectively.
During that hearing, ABB objected to returning to Chile. At the time of the hearing, ABB was 14 years old. She was doing well at school and the record does not indicate that she had any kind of difficulties adjusting to life in the United States. She stated that she wanted to stay in the United States because her life in Chile was unstable. In Chile, she lived in poverty, frequently moved, and was constantly in fear that Alvarez Romero would find them and hurt her mother. Without prompting, ABB described a number of instances where she saw her father beat her mother, including some incidents her mother did not know ABB witnessed. For example, she described an incident when her father threw boiling water on her mother while she was cooking, at which point ABB called the police. ABB, her mother, her sister, and her half-brother then had to live in a hotel to stay safe from her father. She recalled watching her father purchase and consume drugs in her presence. She also recalled several interactions with the police in Chile when they responded to Alvarez Romero’s violent outbursts. ABB also testified that she witnessed her father hit her half-brother, giving him a black eye.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected Alvarez Romero argument that ABB could only testify about her objections to returning to Chile because “the Hague Convention does not authorize the Court to interview a child or any other witness in chambers, without the opportunity for cross-examination, on substantive issues in the case.” Instead, he said a court may only interview a child to determine whether the mature child exception applies. The court held that contrary to Alvarez Romero’s contentions, courts regularly rely on the child’s testimony in Hague Convention cases for issues besides the mature child exception
The Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument that the district court improperly applied the mature child exception to ABB. Courts have relied primarily on three considerations in determining when this exception applies: (1) whether the child is sufficiently mature; (2) whether the child has a particularized objection to being repatriated; and (3) whether the objection is the product of undue influence. See Colon v. Mejia Montufar, 470 F. Supp. 3d 1280, 1295 (S.D. Fla. 2020) (citing Tsai-Yi Yang v. Fu-Chiang Tsui, 499 F.3d 259, 279 (3d Cir. 2007)). As to the first factor, courts have looked to the child’s age, ability to express mixed feelings, and to plan past obstacles as indications of maturity. Alvarez Romero said the district court relied solely on ABB’s age in finding that she was sufficiently mature, but that assertion wass not supported by the record. The district court considered ABB’s age (she was fourteen years old at the time), the fact that she was able to express some positive feelings about life in Chile, her ability to provide detailed answers demonstrating an understanding of her situation, and the testimony of her teacher in finding that she was sufficiently mature. In determining whether a child has particular objections to repatriation, courts consider whether the child is expressing merely a preference against return or is “affirmatively objecting to returning to one country—when living in that country would be unacceptable.” Rodriguez v. Yanez, 817 F.3d 466, 477 (5th Cir. 2016). Alvarez Romero claimed that ABB expressed a mere preference to stay in the United States, but he did not support this claim with references to the record. An actual review of the record showed that ABB provided lengthy and detailed particularized objections to being repatriated to Chile based on her father’s constant verbal and physical abuse of her mother. Alvarez Romero also insisted that ABB’s testimony could only be the product of Gajardo Bahamonde’s undue influence. When considering whether a child’s objection is the product of undue influence, courts place great weight on whether the objection is based on the child’s firsthand experiences. Colon, 470 F. Supp. 3d at 1298 (collecting cases). Unquestionably, ABB’s objections were based on her firsthand experiences. She described witnessing numerous incidents of Alvarez Romero physically and verbally abusing her mother, going hungry and homeless when Alvarez Romero cut off her mother financially, observing Alvarez Romero take drugs, and being subject to his harsh discipline. The district court did not err in applying the mature child exception to ABB.
When a Hague Convention petition is filed more than a year after a child is retained, the retaining parent can assert the well-settled defense. Hague Convention Art. 12 (noting that the child must still be returned if the petition is filed after one year “unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment.”) The retaining parent must establish that the child is well-settled by a preponderance of the evidence. 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(B). Alvarez Romero filed the petition more than one year after Gajardo Bahamonde and the children remained in the United States. But Alvarez Romero complained that the district court should not have considered the well-settled defense because he says Gajardo Bahamonde concealed the children’s location from him. Alvarez Romero’s argument failed on both the facts and the law. As a factual matter, the district court determined that Gajardo Bahamonde did not conceal the children’s whereabouts from Alvarez Romero. And even if the record indicated that Gajardo Bahamonde had concealed the location of her children, that alone would not prevent her from asserting the well-settled defense. As the Supreme Court held in Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 572 U.S. 1, 134 S. Ct. 1224 (2014), concealment does not equitably toll the one-year deadline for a parent to file a petition and preclude the retaining parent from asserting the well-settled defense. Id. at 4, 134 S. Ct. at 1228. Therefore, the district court properly considered the well-settled defense here.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument that the district court’s factual findings did not support its ruling that the children were well-settled in the United States. In this circuit, a child is well settled for purposes of the Hague Convention “when a preponderance of the evidence shows that the child has significant connections to their new home that indicate that the child has developed a stable, permanent, and nontransitory life in their new country to such a degree that return would be to the child’s detriment.” Fernandez v. Bailey, 909 F.3d 353, 361 (11th Cir. 2018). The district court’s application of the well-settled defense is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Courts look to how frequently children move around within their new country, whether they attend extracurricular and community activities, and whether they regularly attend school when determining whether they are well-settled. Lozano, 572 U.S. at 17, 134 S. Ct. at 1236 (collecting cases). The children had been living in the United States since December 2017, when Alvarez Romero brought them here. They had been enrolled in school in the United States since January 2018, when he first enrolled them. They changed school districts only once—when they moved to Georgia in November 2018. Both children were doing well in school. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, both children were involved in numerous extracurricular activities, including music lessons, skating, swimming, and soccer. They had close friendships at school and in their neighborhood. The children get along with each other. They were also close with their half-brother, who visited from Alabama every few weeks. Gajardo Bahamonde and the children’s visas were expired. An immigration attorney, who presented expert testimony as to immigration law matters, advised that Gajardo Bahamonde was not under any threat of removal and that she had three options for regularizing her status.
In Jacquety v Baptista, 2021 WL 1885263 (S.D. N.Y., 2021) the district court denied the Petition of Guillaume Jacquety against Respondent Geraldine Helena Tena Baptista (“Geraldine”) seeking return of their daughter E.J. to Guillaume’s custody in Morocco.
The parties were formerly husband and wife under French law. They had a young daughter, referred to as “E.J.” In early November 2018, Geraldine traveled with E.J. from the family’s home in Morocco to Geraldine’s mother’s home in Switzerland and then a few days later to Portugal, where they were joined by Respondent Dr. Yousseff Zaim Wadghiri (“Wadghiri”). From there, Geraldine, E.J., and Wadghiri traveled to New York City, where they have since lived in Wadghiri’s home.
The trial of this matter took place by remote means over twelve days between January 25, 2021 and February 9, 2021. The parties stipulated to Petitioner’s prima facie case. The issues for trial were whether E.J. faced a grave risk of physical or psychological harm if she were repatriated to Morocco and, if so, whether arrangements could be implemented in Morocco that would adequately protect E.J. from that grave risk of harm.
The district court observed that “The grave-risk exception is found in Article 13 of the Hague Convention, which states that: the judicial ... authority of the requested State is not bound to order the return of the child if the person ... which opposes its return establishes that ... there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation. Convention, art. 13(b). The Second Circuit has explained the high bar required to meet the exception: [A] grave risk of harm from repatriation arises ... in cases of serious abuse or neglect, or extraordinary emotional dependence, when the court in the country of habitual residence, for whatever reason, may be incapable or unwilling to give the child adequate protection. The potential harm to the child must be severe, and the ... level of risk and danger required to trigger this exception has consistently been held to be very high. The grave risk involves not only the magnitude of the potential harm but also the probability that the harm will materialize. Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 103 (internal quotation marks, citations, and emphasis omitted); see also Norden-Powers v. Beveridge, 125 F. Supp.2d 634, 640 (E.D.N.Y. 2000) (collecting cases). The exception is to be interpreted narrowly, “lest it swallow the rule.” Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 103; see also 22 U.S.C. § 9001(a)(4) (referring to the Convention’s “narrow exceptions”).
The grave-risk inquiry is “not whether repatriation would place the respondent parent’s safety at grave risk, but whether so doing would subject the child to a grave risk of physical or psychological harm.” Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 104. “Sporadic or isolated incidents of physical discipline directed at the child, or some limited incidents aimed at persons other than the child, even if witnessed by the child, have not been found to constitute a grave risk.” Id. (collecting cases). In contrast, “[t]he exception to repatriation has been found where the petitioner showed a sustained pattern of physical abuse and / or a propensity for violent abuse that presented an intolerably grave risk to the child.”. As the Second Circuit has explained: [A]t one end of the spectrum are those situations where repatriation might cause inconvenience or hardship, eliminate certain educational or economic opportunities, or not comport with the child’s preferences; at the other end of the spectrum are those situations in which the child faces a real risk of being hurt, physically or psychologically, as a result of repatriation. The former do not constitute a grave risk of harm under Article 13(b); the latter do. Blondin v. Dubois, 238 F.3d 153, 162 (2d Cir. 2001) (“Blondin IV”)
“Evidence of prior spousal abuse, though not directed at the child, can support the grave risk of harm defense, as could a showing of the child’s exposure to such abuse,” though “[e]vidence of this kind ... is not dispositive in these fact-intensive cases.” Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 104 (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citations omitted); see also Davies v. Davies, 717 F. App’x 43, 49 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order) (finding no error in district court’s grave risk finding “premised on overwhelming evidence of Mr. Davies’s extreme violence and uncontrollable anger, as well as his psychological abuse of Ms. Davies over many years, much of which was witnessed by [the child]”); Ermini, 758 F.3d at 164 (“Spousal violence ... can also establish a grave risk of harm to the child, particularly when it occurs in the presence of the child”); Mohácsi v. Rippa, 346 F. Supp.3d 295, 320, 322 (E.D.N.Y. 2018) (“witnessing the abuse of [one’s] mother is enough to establish the applicability of the defense”), aff’d sub. nom. In re NIR, 797 F. App’x 23 (2d Cir. 2019) (summary order affirming denial of petition).
Even if the requirements of the grave risk of harm exception are met, principles of comity require the court to “determine whether there exist alternative ameliorative measures that are either enforceable by the District Court or, if not directly enforceable, are supported by other sufficient guarantees of performance.” Saada v. Golan, 930 F.3d 533, 541-42 (2d Cir. 2019). The Court may consider, among other things, “whether [the other country’s] courts will enforce key conditions” to protect the child. Id. at 541.
The Convention’s grave-risk exception is an affirmative defense that the respondent must prove “by clear and convincing evidence,” although “subsidiary facts need only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.” Elyashiv v. Elyashiv, 353 F. Supp.2d 394, 404 & n.10 (E.D.N.Y. 2005); see 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(A).
The court found that Respondent has proven by clear and convincing evidence that E.J. faces a grave risk of harm if she is repatriated to Morocco. Petitioners expert, Dr. Goslin determined that there was “clear and compelling evidence” that E.J. suffers from PTSD resulting from domestic violence by Guillaume toward Geraldine, and that E.J. was at serious risk of an increase in her PTSD symptoms and negative impact on her development if she were to return to Morocco. Dr. Goslin predicted “with a great deal of certainty” that if returned to Morocco, E.J.’s PTSD symptoms would increase and her developmental functioning would regress. In short, E.J. would not be able to recover from her PTSD if returned to Morocco.
E.J.’s plight had been made even more precarious as a result of the recent Moroccan Judgment awarding physical and residential custody of E.J. to Guillaume based on a one-sided record. Dr. Goslin testified that if left in an unsupervised setting with her father, E.J.’s PTSD symptoms would intensify and she therefore would neither feel safe nor be safe. Making matters worse, the Moroccan Judgment imposed extreme restrictions on Geraldine’s visitation rights, limiting her to only day time visits on the weekends. As a result, E.J. would be deprived of her primary caregiver, further exacerbating her PTSD.
Dr. Goslin was the only expert who evaluated E.J. Petitioner provided no expert testimony. Courts have denied petitions under the Convention in such circumstances. For instance, in Blondin IV, the Second Circuit affirmed the denial of a petition to return two children to France. The district court found that petitioner had beaten his wife, the respondent, often in the child’s presence and that he had also beaten one of the children. The district court also accepted the expert testimony of an expert child psychiatrist, Dr. Solnit. Like Dr. Goslin here, Dr. Solnit opined that the children were recovering from PTSD and that “if the children were returned to France with or without their mother and even if they could avoid being in the same domicile as the father ... they would almost certainly suffer a recurrence of their [PTSD] that would impair their physical, emotional, intellectual and social development.” 238 F.3d at 160. The petitioner in Blondin IV did not provide any contrary expert testimony to rebut Dr. Solnit’s opinions.
Sixteen years later, the Second Circuit in Davies reached a similar conclusion in affirming the district court’s denial of a petition to return a child to French St. Martin. Davies v. Davies, No. 16-CV-6542, 2017 WL 361556, at *17 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2017).See also Elyashiv, 353 F. Supp.2d at 408-09 (denying repatriation where there was uncontroverted expert testimony that the children would suffer relapse of their PTSD symptoms upon returning to Israel, even if they had no contact with petitioner); Reyes Olguin v. Cruz Santana, No. 03-CV-6299, 2005 WL 67094, at *2-4, 7, 11-12 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2005) (denying repatriation where there was uncontroverted expert testimony that return to Mexico would exacerbate child’s PTSD).
The Court found by clear and convincing evidence, based on Dr. Goslin’s opinion (Respondents’ expert child psychologist), Dr. Cling’s opinion (he was retained by Respondents to evaluate Geraldine) regarding Geraldine, and the parties’ testimony to the extent deemed credible, that E.J. experienced PTSD due to domestic violence, that returning her to Morocco would exacerbate her PTSD, and that she faced grave risk of harm if returned to Morocco. Those findings were supported by E.J. herself in what she reported to Dr. Goslin, including that her dad “smacked” her mother many times, used bad language, yelled, was verbally abusive, and broke things in the home; that incidents of that nature happened a lot; that “[her father] kept smacking [her mother]” even though “she never does something”; that E.J. felt “bad” and worried for her mother’s safety, “because she’s my mom and no one can touch her like that”; that she “didn’t trust [her] dad at all”; and that she “was afraid [her dad] would smack [her] mom again.” And although E.J. has tried to stop thinking of the violence, “like 100 times,” “it didn’t work” and she “tr[ies] to forget all day long but it always comes back.” In short, E.J. was exposed to sustained and serious violence that continues to haunt her.
The Court observed that even where there is a grave risk of harm from repatriation, the Court must consider whether there are “any ameliorative measures (by the parents and by the authorities of the state having jurisdiction over the question of custody) that can reduce whatever risk might otherwise be associated with [the] child’s repatriation.” Blondin II, 189 F.3d at 248. The Court considered means of mitigating E.J.’s grave risk of harm upon repatriation and found that there are no ameliorative measures sufficient to prevent exacerbation of E.J.’s PTSD.
Petitioner offered expert testimony that Morocco has laws to protect persons who are abused. Respondent has offered expert testimony explaining that despite having laws on the books, domestic violence remains prevalent and women remain unprotected. The Court noted that the extent to which those propositions are true need not be resolved. As the Second Circuit has recognized, even when a country’s authorities “are both willing and able to make numerous arrangements and accommodations to facilitate repatriation,” there may be circumstances where they still “cannot provide the necessary protection.” Blondin IV, 238 F.3d at 162. This case presented such circumstances because to provide the necessary protection, Moroccan authorities “would [be] require[d] ... to fulfill the impossible task of ensuring that a return to [Morocco] would not trigger a recurrence of traumatic stress disorder in the children.” In Blondin II, the Second Circuit remanded the district court’s initial decision finding a grave risk of harm specifically for the purpose of evaluating potential ameliorative measures. On remand, the district court found that there were no arrangements at all that would mitigate the grave risk of harm posed to the children, “because returning to France under any circumstances would cause them psychological harm, as France was the scene of their trauma. The court based this determination on uncontested expert testimony that the children would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder upon repatriation.” Blondin IV, 238 F.3d at 157; see also Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 104 (explaining that “[t]he holding in Blondin IV depended on the fact that due to the nature of the potential harm at issue – recurrence of PTSD that would occur as soon as the children entered France – there was nothing the courts could do to prevent it”). The situation here was the same. The recent Moroccan Judgment only underscored the point.
In his post-trial reply brief, Petitioner requested for the first time that he be given the opportunity to propose undertakings he would take in the event the Court were otherwise to deny the Petition. The court held that his belated request was too little too late. And the Court found that there were no undertakings that Petitioner could offer to sufficiently address the problem. Undertakings are of limited efficacy in that the court imposing the conditions “retain[s] no power to enforce those orders across national borders.” Baran, 526 F.3d at 1350. “Because the court granting or denying a petition for return lacks jurisdiction to enforce any undertakings it may order, even the most carefully crafted conditions of return may prove ineffective in protecting a child from [grave] risk of harm.” Accordingly, “in cases in which a district court has determined that repatriating a child will expose him or her to a grave risk of harm, unenforceable undertakings are generally disfavored, particularly where there is reason to question whether the petitioning parent will comply with the undertakings and there are no other sufficient guarantees of performance.” Saada, 930 F.3d at 540; see also Davies, 2017 WL 361556 at *20 (concluding that petitioner could not be trusted to honor agreements or commitments he might make).
The Court did not believe that Petitioner could be relied on to make the requisite effort to abide whatever undertakings he may propose. Nor were there potential undertakings that would sufficiently ameliorate the grave risk of psychological harm to E.J. for the same reason that there were no potential Moroccan legal remedies or services that would do so: returning to Morocco would trigger E.J.’s PTSD. The Court found that there were no undertakings or other ameliorative measures that could sufficiently protect against the grave risk of harm E.J. would face upon return to Morocco.
Lukic v Elezovic, 2021 WL 1904258 ( E.D. New York, 2021)
In Lukic v Elezovic, 2021 WL 1904258 ( E.D. New York, 2021) petitioner, Tomislav Lukic, moved for costs pursuant to 22 U.S.C. § 9007(b)(3) relating to the return of his child, N.L., to Montenegro. Respondent, Bahrija Elezovic, opposed, arguing that equitable factors favored denying a costs award. The district court denied the motion.
The Court observed that 22 U.S.C. § 9007(b)(3) provides that “Any court ordering the return of a child pursuant to an action brought under [the Hague Convention] shall order the respondent to pay necessary expenses incurred by or on behalf of the petitioner, including court costs, legal fees, foster home or other care during the course of proceedings in the action, and transportation costs related to the return of the child, unless the respondent establishes that such order would be clearly inappropriate.”. “In considering whether expenses are ‘clearly inappropriate,’ courts in this Circuit consider factors including: (1) whether there was a reasonable basis for removing the children to the United States ...; (2) whether either party engaged in forum shopping ...; (3) the degree to which the petitioner bears responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the fees and costs associated with a petition ...; (4) a respondent’s inability to pay an award ...; (5) whether fees and costs will deter such conduct from happening in the first place ...; and (6) whether the case is not a difficult one and falls squarely within the heartland of the Hague Convention ....” Nissim v. Kirsh, No. 18-CV-11520 (ALC), 2020 WL 3496988, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 2020)
Petitioner sought €1,132.39 for “his airline travel to the United States and his airline travel back to Montenegro with” N.L. The court found that equitable factors favored denying even this partial cost award. Respondent had shown she had no income or assets and relied on her family in New York to provide basic needs. Even though petitioner’s requested award was relatively modest, it far exceeded anything respondent wass able to pay. The Second Circuit has noted that “an expenses award that is greater than a respondent’s total assets ... at a minimum[ ] require[s] a reasoned explanation.” Souratgar v. Lee Jen Fair, 818 F.3d 72, 81 n.3 (2d Cir. 2016).
The Court found that while respondent had petitioner’s permission to bring N.L. to the United States, respondent did not have a reasonable basis to retain N.L. beyond the bounds of a tourist visa. Neither party appeared to have engaged in forum shopping. The Montenegrin Family Court had awarded respondent physical custody of N.L. in 2015. While petitioner had moved the Montenegrin Family Court to amend this judgment in December 2018 and those proceedings were ongoing when respondent brought N.L. to the United States, respondent had an advantage in that forum as the existing custodial parent. There was no evidence that she moved abroad to avoid an amended custody judgment, and she ultimately prevailed in that dispute. Petitioner did not bear responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to his airline travel. Respondent did contribute to delay in effectuating N.L.’s return, but that delay only incurred a €30 airline change fee. Ordering costs here would have some deterrent value, but this is not a quintessential Hague Convention case in which the respondent “attempt[ed] to find a friendlier forum for deciding custodial disputes.” The Montenegrin family court awarded respondent physical custody, and N.L.’s unlawful retention interfered with petitioner’s statutory ne exeat rights, not any court judgment. Although petitioner’s entitlement to N.L.’s return was clear, this case did not implicate the heartland of the Hague Convention’s purpose “to remedy abuses by noncustodial parents who attempt to circumvent adverse custody decrees.” On balance, while equitable factors were mixed, respondent’s lack of assets outweighed any considerations favoring a costs award. Petitioner received sophisticated pro bono representation that led to N.L.’s return to Montenegro and only incurred travel costs to effectuate his legal win. Respondent’s current separation from her child wass more than just punishment for her unlawful actions. Taxing her negligible assets