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Monday, June 18, 2012

Nixon v Nixon, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2011 WL 7972481 (D.N.M.) [Australia] [Grave Risk of Harm]

In Nixon v Nixon, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2011 WL 7972481 (D.N.M.) Petitioner Mark Nixon was Australian and Respondent Gail Nixon was from the United States. On or about November 24, 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon were married in Aztec, New Mexico. ON December 25, 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon left for Sydney, Australia, where they lived together ever since. On or about July 15, 2010, in Australia, their son, Aidin Casey Nixon, was born. Aidin did not leave Australia until on or about July 2, 2011, when Mr. and Mrs. Nixon and Aidin traveled to New Mexico to visit Mrs. Nixon's family, who lived in Aztec. The parties had planned that Mr. Nixon would return to Sydney on July
10, 2011 because of work obligations, and that Mrs. Nixon and Aidin would stay on until August 31, 2011 with Mrs. Nixon's parents. Mrs. Nixon had a return ticket booked for August 31, 2011. On August 16, 2011, however, Mrs. Nixon canceled her return flight. On or about August 29, 2011, Mrs. Nixon filed a divorce action in  the Eleventh Judicial District Court of New Mexico. On or about August 31, 2011, Mrs. Nixon informed Mr. Nixon by telephone that she was not coming back to
Australia, and that she had filed a divorce action in order to simplify custody.

On September 29, 2011, Mrs. Nixon's counsel advised Mr. Nixon's counsel that she would return to Australia. On October 4, 2011, however, Mrs. Nixon's counsel advised Mr. Nixon's counsel that Mrs. Nixon had changed her mind and intended to remain in New Mexico. Mr. Nixon did not consent to Mrs. Nixon's retention of Aidin in the United States. On October 5, 2011, Mr. Nixon filed the Petition, seeking, inter alia, an order directing that federal marshals and/or other law enforcement personnel be ordered to assist in picking up Aidin and returning him to the custody of Mr. Nixon,
allowing the prompt return of Mr. Nixon and Aidin to Australia, directing that Aidin's travel documents be surrendered with him, and requiring Mrs. Nixon to pay Mr. Nixon's costs and attorney fees. The Court granted the petition.

Mrs. Nixon argued that the United States, rather than Australia, was Aidin's habitual residence, because she never intended to be domiciled in Australia, but rather always intended to move back to Aztec, and, at some point in the past, believed that Mr. Nixon agreed to move to the United States. According to Mrs. Nixon, because Aidin was so young, his habitual residence was connected to his mother, and because she intended to move home to Aztec, Aztec was Aidin's habitual residence. Neither the evidence nor the relevant case law supported Mrs. Nixon's position. It was undisputed that, since their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon lived continuously in Australia. Mrs. Nixon was a permanent resident of Australia. Aidin was born in Australia and never left Australia until this trip to New Mexico. Mr. Nixon testified that it was never his intent to move to the United States. Mrs. Nixon admitted in her testimony that although she wanted to move back to Aztec at some point in the near future, Mr. Nixon did not share the same intention, and told her in no uncertain terms that he did not wish to relocate there. Mrs. Nixon further admitted that she is presently in the United States for what she intended to be a two-month vacation, and it was not until she had been here for six weeks that she decided not to return to Australia. Mrs. Nixon actually had a ticket to return to Australia with Aidin on August 31, 2011.

Considering Aidin's past experiences and the parties' shared intentions, it was clear that Australia was the only place where Aidin had been physically present for an amount of time sufficient for acclimatization, and which had a "settled purpose" from his perspective. Mr. and Mrs. Nixon had no shared intention that Aidin reside in Aztec, New Mexico. Although the parties brought Aidin to the United States, the trip was intended by both of them to be of a specific period of two months. The fact that Mrs. Nixon unilaterally changed her intentions six weeks into the visit was insufficient to alter Aidin's habitual residence. Aidin was born in Australia and resided exclusively in Australia until Mrs. Nixon retained him in the United States. The Court found that Aidin was a habitual resident of Australia at the time of his retention in the United States.

Because Australia would apply its own laws in this case, Mr. Nixon's "custody rights were determined by Australia's Family Law Act 1975, of which [this Court] may take notice directly." Under Australia's Family Law Act 1975, "in the absence of any orders of court, each parent is a joint guardian and a joint custodian of the child, and guardianship and custody rights involve essentially the right to have and make decisions concerning daily care and control of the child."(Family Law Act 63(F)(1), 63E(1) and (2)). As there were no court orders to the contrary, Mr. Nixon had joint custody and control of Aidin. Accordingly, Mrs. Nixon's unilateral decision to retain Aidin in the United States was in breach of Mr. Nixon's custody rights under the laws of Australia, the state of Aidin's habitual residence.

The evidence demonstrated that, far from abandoning his child, Mr. Nixon lived with Mrs. Nixon and Aidin "as a family." When Aidin was born, Mr. Nixon took four weeks leave from work to care for him. Mrs. Nixon testified that when she was at work every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening, Mr. Nixon watched Aidin and put him to bed. Mr. Nixon similarly testified that he helped Mrs. Nixon "as much as possible, in terms of raising Aidin," which involved "doing anything from looking after Aidin, ... taking him for walks, bathing him, putting him to bed, reading him stories, playing with him." Accordingly, the Court found that Mr. Nixon was exercising his custodial rights at the time of Mrs. Nixon's retention of Aidin in the United States.

The sole defense argued by Mrs. Nixon was that Aidin would be exposed to a grave risk of harm if returned to Australia. Mrs. Nixon alleged that Aidin would suffer grave harm if he were taken from his mother, as she is still nursing him. Mrs. Nixon alleged that Mr. Nixon was diagnosed with ALS and suffered from obsessive/compulsive disorder, both of which conditions called into question his ability to care for Aidin Finally, Mrs. Nixon alleged that Mr. Nixon informed her that upon her return to Australia, he would take sole custody of Aidin and that she could live "somewhere," perhaps with her brother who lives five hours away from the marital residence, which would be an intolerable situation for Aidin. Mrs. Nixon testified that several times, Mr. Nixon held Aidin and fallen over, and she was worried that he would again hold Aidin and fall. She also testified that Mr. Nixon was controlling and rigid, and disagreed with her as to issues such as Aidin's feeding and sleeping schedules. Additionally, Mrs. Nixon testified that when she asked Mr. Nixon what would happen if she returned to Australia, he "made it clear that [she] might be able to live with him, maybe not." She further testified that, when she asked him where she was supposed to live, he responded, "I don't know, but we'll figure it out," and indicated that he could take leave from work and have primary custody of Aidin for a period of time. Based on this conversation, Mrs. Nixon became afraid that Mr. Nixon expected her to "land in Australia, hand Aidin over, and be basically on the streets." Mrs. Nixon testified: [I]t's still very alarming to fly halfway across the world, get off a plane, and not know where you're going to live and how you're going to be supported, especially with an infant that I'm still breast feeding. That is unacceptable and intolerable for myself and for our son."

The Court observed that federal courts uniformly note that "[t]he bar for proving the 'grave risk' exception is set exceptionally high." Krefter v. Wills, 623 F.Supp.2d 125, 135 (D.Mass.2009). The Court found that Mrs. Nixon's allegations fell short of establishing a grave risk of harm if Aidin was returned to Australia. Mrs. Nixon intended to return to Australia along with Aidin. Accordingly, any danger that would result from Aidin's separation from his mother would not come to pass. Notably, an order that Aidin be returned to Australia is not the equivalent of an order that Mr. Nixon is entitled
to sole custody of Aidin. Mr. Nixon testified that it was not his intention to take sole custody of Aidin upon his return to Australia. He explained that he had the opportunity to take five months paid leave to care for Aidin, so long as "he is designated the primary caregiver," and that this is "an option for discussion with [Mrs. Nixon]." Further, Mrs. Nixon's concerns about Mr. Nixon's fitness as a parent were unsupported. Mr. Nixon testified that he had not been officially diagnosed with ALS, and Mrs. Nixon presented no evidence that any doctor has ever advised him that it is unsafe for him to care for Aidin. Mr. Nixon had been in counseling for years for his emotional issues, and he had never been advised by a counselor that his OCD interferes with his ability to care for Aidin. Until they left for the United States, Mrs. Nixon routinely entrusted Aidin to Mr. Nixon's care. Mrs. Nixon's testimony as to her experience of Mr. Nixon as controlling did not rise to the level required to establish that Aidin's return to Australia will expose him to a grave risk of harm. While her testimony demonstrated parenting and personality differences, such differences were not uncommon, and certainly did not demonstrate that Mr. Nixon posed a danger to his son. Finally, courts routinely have held that financial concerns are insufficient to establish an "intolerable situation." Krefter, 623 F.Supp.2d at 136-37; Wilchynski v. Wilchynski, No. 3:1-CV-63, 2010 WL 1068070, *9 (S.D. Miss. Mar. 18, 2010). Accordingly, Mrs. Nixon's fears about her ability to support herself and maintain a home where she could nurse and properly care for Aidin did not meet the standard necessary to show a risk of grave harm. Because Mrs. Nixon failed to establish a valid defense to her wrongful retention of Aidin in the United States, Aidin had to be returned to Australia.

The Court accepted Mr. Nixon's proposed undertakings, and ordered that Mrs. Nixon will continue to live in the marital residence, and Mr. Nixon will provide Mrs. Nixon with maintenance and support, until such time as the courts in Australia make other arrangements for the parties.

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