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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Felder v. Ponder, 2012 WL 3128570 (D.Mass.) [Switzerland] [Rights of Custody]

In Felder v. Ponder, 2012 WL 3128570 (D.Mass.) Petitioner Claudia Felder sought an order for the return of her fourteen year-old daughter ( "K.W."), to Switzerland. Felder claimed the wrongful retention of K.W. under the Hague Convention by Respondent Alexandra Ponder, K.W.'s godmother, Patrick Wetzel, K.W.'s father, and Children's Hospital Corporation where she had been treated. The District Court granted Wetzel’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

K.W. was a citizen of Switzerland. When K.W.'s parents divorced in August 2007, the Uster District Court in Switzerland granted Felder custody of K.W. and her two sisters. Ponder was K.W.'s godmother; she and Felder had known each other for over twenty years. In September 2011, Felder sent K.W. to the United States to study at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Felder agreed to have Ponder, a resident of Haverhill, Massachusetts, care for K.W. while she attended
school in the United States. Although she resided here during the school year, K.W. flew back to Switzerland for approximately one week in December and returned to school on January 3, 2012. At some point, Ponder began complaining about K.W.'s behavior and expressed doubts about her ability to continue caring for K.W. On May 19, 2012, K.W. attempted suicide. This attempt came on the heels of Felder's suggestion that K.W. should return to Switzerland. K.W. was taken to the emergency room at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Massachusetts. She was subsequently admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit at Children's Hospital. Ponder notified Felder of K.W.'s emergency hospitalization and Felder agreed that K.W. should receive immediate medical care to ensure her safety and well-being. Throughout the first three weeks of K.W.'s hospitalization, Felder monitored K.W.'s progress through Ponder and the medical team at the Hospital. After K.W. had been hospitalized for about three weeks, medical staff proposed that K.W. be discharged from the Hospital to McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Belmont. After consulting with medical professionals in Switzerland, Felder proposed that K.W. be transferred back to Switzerland for further treatment. Felder and K.W.'s physician in Switzerland advised the Hospital staff that they would take responsibility for K.W.'s health and safety and would personally accompany K.W. back to Switzerland. On June 7, 2012, Felder was contacted by a social worker of the Hospital and informed that K.W. could not return to Switzerland. By mid-June, Ponder and Felder's relationship had broken down and Ponder no longer responded to Felder's inquiries about K.W.

.On June 17, 2012, Felder refused to give her consent to Ponder's request for guardianship over K.W., including an order that K.W. remain in the United States, and told Ponder that any prior consent to temporary guardianship had been terminated. On June 20, 2012, Felder traveled to Boston and informed Ponder that she was revoking her temporary role as K.W.'s guardian. On the heels of K.W.'s suicide attempt, K.W.'s father, Wetzel, contacted the City of Lucerne Switzerland, Office of Guardianship Authority concerning his daughter's situation. The Guardianship Authority issued an order by letter dated June 21, 2012 to Felder, stating that the "endangerment of [K.W.] can only be avoided by withdrawing your right to determine the place of residence of [K.W.], or concretely the parental custody right.". The Guardianship Authority issued its precautionary decision withdrawing Felder's parental custody rights, ordering that K.W. continue to be hospitalized for further treatment at Children's Hospital and prohibiting Ponder from removing K.W. from the clinic at that time. Ponder then sought and obtained temporary guardianship over K.W. in Essex County Massachusetts Probate and Family Court on June 25, 2012. On June 27, 2012, Felder requested reconsideration of the Guardianship Authority's June 21, 2012 decision withdrawing her custody rights and requested "its complete repeal."

On July 10, 2012, Felder filed a Hague Convention petition for K.W.'s return to Switzerland, claiming the wrongful retention of K.W. under the Hague Convention by Ponder, Wetzel and Children's Hospital The following day, the Swiss Guardianship Authority issued a letter stating that it "always has jurisdiction over child protection matters" but that "since [K.W.] has resided in America for almost one year, this is a matter of international concern ... the authorities at the place of residence of the child have subject-matter jurisdiction...." The letter further stated that "[b]y the decision of June 25, 2012, the Essex Probate and Family Court ... appointed Alexandra Ponder as the preliminary custodian of [K.W.]. The American authorities thus acknowledged their jurisdiction due to residency and ordered the child protection measures they deemed necessary" and that because of that decision "the basis for the continuation of the child protection proceedings by the Lucerne guardianship office ... ceases to exist" and "the precautionary decision [of June 21, 2012] is to be repealed."

The same day the Swiss Guardianship Authority issued this decision, Felder filed an emergency motion to vacate Ponder's guardianship of K.W. in Probate and Family Court, which was denied. In rendering its decision, the Probate and Family Court reasoned that "the best evidence" before it demonstrated that Felder's "custody rights have been withdrawn" and that the last letter by the Guardianship Authority, does not make clear that those rights "had been reinstated."

On July 12, 2012, the District Court of Lucerne in Switzerland dismissed Felder's complaint against the Guardianship Authority regarding its June 21, 2012 ruling. The Court found that "[w]ith the repeal of the precautionary ruling handed down June 21, 2012, the revocation of the complainant's parental custody ordered by the custodianship authorities of Lucerne becomes obsolete. The complainant no longer has any legally protected interests in continuing the proceedings before the Lucerne District Court. This shall not affect any child protection actions offered by the U.S. authorities."

On July 16, 2012, Ponder filed her verified answer in the Federal District Court, and Wetzel moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court held a hearing on the matter on July 20, 2012.

Felder argued that K.W.'s habitual residence was Switzerland. The Court observed that the  determination of a child's habitual residence "begins with the parents' shared intent or settled purpose regarding their child's residence." Nicolson, 605 F.3d at 104 & n. 2. It was undisputed that K.W. was born and raised in Switzerland and that both of her parents still resided there. K.W. also resided in Switzerland until she came to the United States with her mother's permission to attend school. Felder had custody of K.W. since August 2007 and allowed her to come to the United States to attend Central Catholic in Lawrence, Massachusetts, arranging that Ponder would care for K.W. while she studied here. Shortly after purchasing K.W.'s tickets for travel to the United States in August 2011, Felder booked her return flight to Switzerland for July 12, 2012. She also flew back home to Switzerland in late December between the fall and spring semesters. Based on this record, even focusing, as the Court must, on where the child was habitually resident immediately before the alleged wrongful retention in June 2012, Felder's intent and settled purpose was that K.W.'s habitual residence would remain in Switzerland even as she allowed K.W. to attend school in the United States. Although Ponder and Wetzel claimed that K.W.'s habitual residence was now the United States, the record did not support this contention. Even if the Court credited the Defendants' contention that Felder had acquired a four-year student visa for K.W. to attend school in the United States, such fact did not negate Felder's intent or settled purpose that K.W. would temporarily attend school here but retain a habitual residence in Switzerland. See Poliero v. Centenaro, 373 Fed. Appx. 102, 105-106 (2d Cir.2010) (finding that children's expressed preference for staying in the United States and their schooling for one year in New York did not alter intention that children's habitual residence remain Italy). This was not a case in which "the evidence points unequivocally to the conclusion that the child had become acclimatized to [her] new surroundings and that [her] habitual residence has consequently shifted," Poliero, 373 Fed. Appx. at 105, to the United States. "This is a difficult test to satisfy, and a child's habitual residence will only be found to have shifted due to acclimatization, if the child's relative attachments to the [the two possible habitual residences] have changed to the point where requiring return to the original forum would not be tantamount to taking the child out of the family and social environment in which its life has developed." The evidence here did not not unequivocally demonstrate that K.W.'s acclimatization to the United States had become so complete that returning her to Switzerland would be equivalent to taking her out of a family and social environment in which her life has developed. K.W. returned to Switzerland between the fall and spring semesters to spend time with her Mother and sisters, and there was no suggestion that since returning to the United States for her spring semester, she had not maintained regular contact with her family and friends in Switzerland, despite the allegedly volatile relationship between K.W. and her mother. Thus, it could not be said that K.W.'s habitual residence shifted to the United States.

The Court pointed out that although Felder was granted sole custody of K.W., as part of her divorce decree by the Uster District Court in Switzerland in August 2007, the Swiss Civil Code grants the Guardianship Authority the authority to determine parental custody rights in all matters apart from divorce decrees or modification of same. Under the Swiss Civil Code, the Swiss courts have jurisdiction to amend court orders regarding custody awards and child protection during divorce proceedings, proceeding to alter a divorce decree or in proceedings to modify measures for the protection of the marital union, but "[i]n all other cases jurisdiction lies with the guardianship authorities."Swiss Civil Code, art. 315b. Accordingly, the Guardianship Authority had the power to withdraw parental custody from a parent. Art. 307, 310-312. As of June 21st, the Guardianship Authority took the action that it was empowered to take and revoked Felder's parental custody. However, the Guardianship Authority did take further action after June 21, 2012, but its subsequent rulings did not unequivocally reinstate her custody rights. The Court agreed that the June 21, 2012 decision withdrawing Felder's custody rights over K.W. was a provisional, emergency ruling given the urgent situation involving K.W.'s hospitalization in the United States. The Guardianship Authority's July 11, 2012 letter explained that its previous decision to withdraw Felder's custody rights was based on the information it had at the time that Felder wanted to remove K.W. from the hospital against doctors' recommendations and that at the time of its decision, no Massachusetts court had exercised jurisdiction over the matter to ensure K.W.'s health and safety given the exigency of the situation. The letter explained that because the Probate and Family Court ordered child protection measures for K.W. in appointing Ponder as her temporary guardian on June 25, 2012, after the Guardianship Authority's June 21, 2012 decision, a Massachusetts court had now exercised jurisdiction over the matter, and, as a result, there was no longer a need for the child protection measures the Guardianship Authority had implemented in its June 21, 2012 decision and it repealed that decision. That the Guardianship Authority withdrew its June 21, 2012 order in light of the proceeding in Probate and Family Court, in which Ponder was appointed as a temporary guardian, did not mean that Felder retains her custodial rights. There was no affirmation by the Guardianship Authority of Felder's custody rights even in light of its knowledge of the Probate and Family Court proceedings in which Ponder was appointed as K. W.'s temporary guardian. In the absence of confirmation by the Guardianship Authority that Felder retained her custodial rights, the Court found that Felder failed to show, by a preponderance of evidence, the wrongful retention of K.W. in the United States.

Felder's counsel urged the Court to obtain from Swiss authorities pursuant to Article 15 of the Hague Convention"a decision or other determination that the removal or retention was wrongful within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention, ...." The Court stated that making such a request is at the discretion of the Court and, given both the emergency nature of the Petition and the rulings of the Guardianship Authority in Switzerland, the last of which deferred to Probate and Family Court's ongoing proceedings regarding K.W., the Court declined to make such request.

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