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Monday, August 27, 2012

Fernandez v. Somaru, 2012 WL 3553779 (M.D.Fla.)[Costa Rica] [Habitual Residence]

In Fernandez v. Somaru, 2012 WL 3553779 (M.D.Fla.) petitioner Marcela Araya Fernandez filed a Verified Petition for Return of Child to Costa Rica on May 11, 2012. Petitioner and respondent were the unmarried parents of three year old daughter, I.S.A. Petitioner alleged that I .S.A. is being unlawfully retained in the Middle District of Florida by the child's father, Pramanan Somaru, Jr., who wrongfully prevented the child's return to her habitual residence of Costa Rica. Marcela Araya Fernandez (petitioner ) was born in Costa Rica, resided there virtually her whole life, and was a citizen of only Costa Rica. Araya's entire family lived in Costa Rica. Pramanan Somaru, Jr. (respondent was a naturalized United States citizen who for the past fifteen years considered his residence to be his parent's house in Cape Coral, Florida. Somaru possessed a United States passport and traveled extensively in the years relevant to this case. In 2007, Somaru started a call center business in Costa Rica. Other than this business, Somaru had no particular ties to Costa Rica. Somaru hired Araya as an employee of his call center business in San Jose, Costa Rica, and in approximately April, 2007, they became romantically involved. Somaru fired Araya as an employee after a couple of weeks, but they continued their personal relationship. Somaru and Araya lived together in Costa Rica from May, 2007 through late April, 2008, and the relationship proved to be volatile, with numerous arguments and break-ups followed by periods of reconciliation. Somaru continued to travel frequently, and there was numerous email communications between the two. The Costa Rica call center was not successful, and Somaru closed it in April or May, 2008. In May, 2008, Somaru returned to Cape Coral, Florida and rented a house. Araya followed him shortly thereafter on a tourist visa. The relationship remained volatile, and Araya returned to Costa Rica and broke up with Somaru. Araya then learned she was pregnant, so she informed Somaru and they tried to make their mostly long distance relationship work.

Araya remained in Costa Rica, and her daughter I .S.A. was born in Costa Rica on March 4, 2009. Somaru arrived in Costa Rica three days before, and was present for the birth of I.S.A. Somaru left Costa Rica shortly thereafter, but continued to financially support his daughter to the best of his ability. Somaru returned to Costa Rica for a week when I.S.A. was five or six months old. Petitioner was always the primary care-giver for I.S.A., who remained in Costa Rica. Petitioner and respondent (collectively the parents) were often separated during the following two years, with Araya residing in Costa Rica with I.S.A. and Somaru living between Florida and Costa Rica and working primarily in Florida. They spoke or emailed often about living together in various places, including the United States. Somaru testified that he and Araya's "main plan" was to make the United States their permanent residence, although the location in the United States was not determined. Araya testified that Somaru talked a lot about residing in various locations to which he had traveled, but this was essentially just talk.

By 2009, when Somaru was working in Miami, Florida, Araya wanted to be together as a family either in or out of Costa Rica, but it did not happen. After that, Araya testified, she gave up any intention of permanently leaving Costa Rica because she just did not believe anymore. Somaru would travel back and forth between his parents' house in Cape Coral and Costa Rica. Somaru and Araya would live together in one of a series of rental houses when Somaru was in Costa Rica. In January, 2011, Somaru purchased a restaurant from Araya's stepfather in Costa Rica, but continued to travel back and forth from his parents' house in Cape Coral, Florida to Costa Rica. Araya initially ran the restaurant during Somaru's absences from Costa Rica, but another employee was soon promoted to manager. In February, 2011, Somaru hired Elizabeth Valde Varantes as a live-in nanny for I.S.A. in Costa Rica. Ms. Varantes was born in Costa Rica, and spoke only Spanish. On September 1, 2011, the parents obtained a United States passport for I.S.A. based upon her father's United States citizenship. On September 13, 2011, both Somaru and Araya executed a "Permiso de Salida de Personas Menores de Edad", a consent form which allowed either parent to travel alone with I.S.A. outside of Costa Rica. Araya testified that the purpose of the passport was to allow I.S.A. to visit her paternal grandparents, while Somaru testified it was in furtherance of their agreement to live permanently in the United States. From September 21 through October 8, 2011, the parents took I.S.A. on a trip to the United States. Somaru describes the trip as a chance for I.S.A. to meet her paternal grandparents and for he and Araya to look for a house and work pursuant to their plan to reside permanently in the United States. According to Araya, the purpose of the trip was simply to allow I.S.A. to visit her paternal grandparents in Cape Coral. During this trip Somaru took a side trip to Bolivia to visit his son for several days. The parents then took I.S.A. to Disney World, and they visited New York, where Somaru was offered employment. According to Somaru, Araya agreed to move to New York, and Somaru accepted the employment. I.S.A. and Araya returned to Costa Rica on October 8, 2011. Somaru testified he returned to Costa Rica in October for a weekend and again in November, 2011, both for the purpose of facilitating the plan to move to the United States. Araya agrees he came to Costa Rica, but only for visits. In the later part of November, 2011, Araya described a "final breakup" with Somaru. Somaru moved out of the house and left Costa Rica, and Araya began sending out employment resumes and actively looking for employment. Somaru testified he did not believe this was a permanent breakup, and that Araya simply did not answer his calls for several days. Somaru testified he left Costa Rica and returned to New York to get things under way while Araya looked for apartments in the New York area. After the breakup, Araya met and shortly thereafter became involved in a romantic relationship with another man in Costa Rica.        

On December 1, 2011, Somaru returned to Costa Rica to take Araya and I.S.A. to the United States. Araya had packed up the house, and on Sunday, December 4, 2011, Somaru and the movers took the furniture to store in the nanny's house, which Somaru had rented for that purpose. Araya then told Somaru that she had a job interview the following day in San Jose, Costa Rica, which was three hours away. Somaru testified that Araya insisted on going to the interview to see if she could get the job, and would then quit. Araya testified this was a bona fide job interview, and she was trying to get the job in Costa Rica. Araya drove to San Jose on December 4, 2001, and Somaru and I.S.A. stayed in the nanny's house while Araya was in San Jose. Somaru made arrangements to leave Costa Rica with I.S.A. on December 8 if the nanny's visa was obtained. In San Jose, Araya interviewed for several days, and was ultimately hired. On December 7, 2011, Somaru, I.S.A., and the nanny took a bus to San Jose and met Araya. According to Araya, she and Somaru agreed that Somaru could take I.S.A. to Florida to visit the child's paternal grandparents if I.S.A. was returned to Costa Rica before December 28, 2011, Araya's birthday. Somaru maintains this was to be their final trip from Costa Rica to their new life in the United States. On December 8, 2012, Somaru and I.S.A. flew from Costa Rica to Florida, while Araya and the nanny (who had not yet obtained a visa) remained in Costa Rica.   
Earlier in December, 2011, Somaru had applied to the United States Embassy for a "nanny" visa for Ms. Barrantes. Somaru's letter to the Embassy stated that Ms. Barrantes had been employed by him since October, 2011; that his fiancé and daughter would be traveling to the United States for the Christmas and New Year holiday; that his fiancé and daughter will return to Costa Rica after the New Year "as my fiancé and Daughter reside in Costa Rica where Ms. Barrantes takes care of my daughter full-time." The visa was issued on December 9, 2011, with the annotation of "babysitter to accompany Somaru family December 2011-Jan 2012 Florida" and with an expiration date of February 7, 2012.  When Araya reported for work in San Jose, Costa Rica on December 8, she was told the position was no longer available. Araya then scheduled job interviews through December 14 in San Jose. She was ultimately offered employment. The nanny could only travel with one of the parents, and Araya and the nanny left Costa Rica and arrived in the United States on December 15, 2011. The nanny traveled on the six month "nanny visa", and Araya traveled on a 90-day tourist visa. Araya testified that the trip to the United States was a holiday trip so I .S.A. could see her paternal grandparents, and that she had no intention of living in the United States permanently. She testified she intended to return to Costa Rica for job training which began on December 19, 2011. Araya, Somaru, I.S.A., and the nanny all stayed at Somaru's parent's house for a day, and then in Somaru's sister's house in Cape Coral. Somaru testified that after they had been in Florida for about a week, Araya changed her mind and decided she did not want to go to New York, so he found work in Florida. Araya had scheduled a flight to Costa Rica on December 18, 2011, but missed it and ended up taking a flight to Costa Rica on December 22, 2011. Somaru testified that on December 21, 2011, Araya told him that she was going back to Costa Rica to wrap up a few things, including employment she had been offered which she no longer wanted, and that she would be back after the holidays. Araya testified that it was agreed that I.S.A. would be back in Costa Rica by December 26 or 27, before Araya's December 28 birthday. Araya returned to Costa Rica, and never returned to Florida (other in connection with this litigation). Somaru testified that he tried to contact Araya in Costa Rica, but had little success. Sometime after December 28, 2011, Somaru decided he needed to move forward with starting to build a life for I.S.A. in the United States without Araya. When I.S.A. was not returned by December 28, 2011, Araya contacted Somaru, who told her to "get used to it."

In January, 2012, Araya contacted Costa Rican authorities and initiated procedures to obtain the return of I.S.A. to Costa Rica, revoking her prior travel permission for Somaru and I.S.A. Araya began work at a new job in Costa Rica on January 2, 2012, and has worked and resided in Costa Rica since then. The Court resolves the credibility issues between petitioner and respondent on material issues as discussed below. The Court found that the retention of I.S.A. in the United States was clearly with petitioner's consent until on or about December 28, 2011, the date by which I.S.A. was to be in Costa Rica for petitioner's birthday. Petitioner testified that she agreed that I.S.A. could be taken to and remain in Florida to visit her paternal grandparents as long as I.S.A. was returned to Costa Rica by December 28, 2011. Respondent retained I.S.A. in Florida past that date without the consent of petitioner. The issue therefore becomes the location of I.S.A.'s habitual residence as of on or about December 28, 2011. Determination of a habitual residence focuses on the existence or non-existence of a settled intention to abandon the former residence in favor of a new residence, coupled with an actual change in geography and the passage of a sufficient length of time for the child to have become acclimatized. Ruiz, 392 F.3d at 1253-54, adopting the approach set forth in Mozes v. Mozes, 239 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir.2001).

 The Court concluded that petitioner established by a preponderance of the evidence that on or about December 28, 2011, I.S.A.'s habitual residence remained Costa Rica. The Court found that the parents never had a settled intention to abandon Costa Rica as a habitual residence and to make the United States the habitual residence for themselves or the child. The version of the facts related by petitioner and respondent, while inconsistent as to material components, both established a lack of a settled intention to do almost anything together with regard to a habitual residence. The only settled shared intent the Court found credible was for I.S.A. to come to Florida for the holidays in December, 2011. The Court found that the actual state of affairs was as respondent told the immigration authorities in mid-December, 2011 in the nanny's visa application: Petitioner and I .S.A. resided in Costa Rica, they were going to Florida for a holiday, and they would then return to Costa Rica. Consequently, the Court finds that at the time the retention began on December 28, 2011, the habitual residence of I.S.A. was Costa Rica. Respondent maintained custody of I.S.A. in the United States and refused to allow the child to return to her mother in Costa Rica. Respondent also retained the child's United States passport (until surrendered to the court). I.S.A.'s usual family and social environment was with Araya in Costa Rica. The Court found that there was a "retention" of I.S.A. within the meaning of the Hague Convention from at least December 28, 2011, forward. Under Costa Rican law, parental custody depends on whether a child was born in or out of wedlock.

Petitioner and respondent were never married, and therefore their daughter I.S.A. was born out of wedlock. Costa Rican law provides, in such a circumstance that, [t]he mother, even when she is under age, shall have custody of the children born out of wedlock and shall have legal rights for that purpose. The Tribunal could, in special cases, confer custody to the father and natural mother jointly, according to its judgement, or upon request from Patronato Nacional de la Infancia and concerning solely the minors' interests. In the event that a child is born in wedlock, Costa Rican law generally provides for custody of both the mother and the father. Under Costa Rican law, custody was conferred to petitioner. Thus, respondent's retention of the child was a wrongful retention under the Hague Convention. Respondent's unilateral retention of I.S.A., without the consent of petitioner, violated petitioner's custody rights under Costa Rica law. The Sixth Circuit has stated that "[t]he only acceptable solution, in the absence of a ruling from a court in the country of habitual residence, is to liberally find 'exercise' whenever a parent with de jure custody rights keeps, or seeks to keep, any sort of regular contact with his or her child." Friedrich, 78 F.3d at 1065. The court went on to "hold that, if a person has valid custody rights to a child under the law of the country of the child's habitual residence, that person cannot fail to 'exercise' those custody rights under the Hague Convention short of acts that constitute clear and unequivocal abandonment of the child." Under this standard, Petitioner established she was exercising her rights of custody at the time the child was wrongfully retained. As established above, petitioner had sole legal custody of I.S.A. There was no evidence of any acts by petitioner which constitute clear and unequivocal abandonment of the child . Accordingly, petitioner met her burden of establishing that I.S.A. was wrongfully retained by respondent and should be returned to Costa Rica, her habitual place of residence. The Court found no factual basis for any of the affirmative defenses raised by the Respondent and granted the petition.

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