Search This Blog

Monday, October 1, 2012

Felder v. Wetzel, --- F.3d ----, 2012 WL 4465591 (C.A.1 (Mass.)) [Switzerland][Rights of Custody]

         In Felder v. Wetzel, --- F.3d ----, 2012 WL 4465591 (C.A.1 (Mass.)) on May 19, 2012, K.W., a fourteen-year-old Swiss citizen, attempted to harm herself by ingesting pills while living in the United States with her godmother, Alexandra Ponder. She was then hospitalized at Children's Hospital Boston. On June 7, 2012, the Hospital declined to release K.W. to her mother, petitioner Claudia Felder, a Swiss resident, absent evidence such a release would comply with the child's treatment plan. It was undisputed that the mother had full custody of her daughter K.W. and that Switzerland was the country of habitual residence. Before these medical events Felder had signed an "Authorization for Medical Treatment of [K.W.]" giving "my authorization and consent for Alexandra Ponder to authorize necessary medical or dental care for this child." The form stated that Felder was the parent and legal guardian, and the authorization was limited. This was done because K.W. was attending school in Massachusetts in the Fall of 2011. Felder bought K.W. a July 12, 2012 return ticket to Switzerland at the end of the school year. K.W. flew back to Switzerland for the holiday break and then returned to Massachusetts on January 3, 2012.

         Felder's Hague Convention petition stated that "on or about May 19, 2012 ... KW stated that she tried to hurt herself by ingesting certain medications belonging to Ponder." K.W. was initially taken to the emergency room at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Massachusetts, but was then transferred to the inpatient psychiatric unit of  Boston Children's Hospital on May 23, 2012. Ponder informed Felder of K.W.'s hospitalization and Felder agreed that K.W. should receive immediate medical care; during the next three weeks, Felder monitored K.W.'s progress via Ponder and the staff at the Hospital while consulting with Swiss medical professionals. After K.W. had been hospitalized for three weeks, Felder and Dr. Andreas Schmidt, K.W.'s Swiss physician, proposed to the staff of the Hospital that K.W. be transferred to Zurich for further treatment. Felder's petition stated that she and Schmidt advised the staff at the Hospital that "they would take responsibility for KW's health and safety and would both personally accompany KW back to Switzerland."
  On June 7, 2012, a social worker at the Hospital contacted Felder and advised her that the Hospital would not permit K.W.'s immediate return to Switzerland. On June 11, 2012, Hospital staff sent an email to Dr. Daniel Marti of the Kinderspital Zurich outlining the conditions under which K.W. could be safely returned to Switzerland. Felder contended that, at about this time, "Ponder stopped providing Mother with  information about her daughter and, in conjunction with the staff at the Hospital,
prevented Mother and KW's sisters from having contact with KW." On June 17, 2012,
Felder told Ponder that she was terminating the medical authorization for K.W. she had signed. On June 20, 2012, Felder traveled to Boston and again told Ponder that she was revoking Ponder's authorization for medical care. Felder alleged that she did not know that K.W.'s father, Wetzel, had by this time filed an ex parte petition as to K.W. in the Guardianship Authority of the City of Lucerne. The Guardianship Authority may take appropriate measures to protect a child's welfare. See id. arts. 307, 315a.

        On June 21, 2012, the Swiss Authority ex parte issued a precautionary order to Felder saying that "[a]t present, the existing endangerment of your daughter can only be avoided by withdrawing your right to determine the place of residence of [K.W.] or concretely the parental custody right."The order prohibited Felder from removing K.W. from the Hospital clinic and said she would be given a full hearing later. On June 25, 2012, Ponder filed a motion to be appointed as K.W.'s temporary guardian with the Essex Division of the Probate and Family Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ponder's motion was made with the consent of K.W.'s non-custodial biological father, Patrick Wetzel. Felder did not appear. The state Family Court acted based on Ponder's representations. On June 25, 2012, the state Family Court appointed Ponder as K.W.'s guardian until September 24, 2012, a date that had since been extended to October 26, 2012. On July 10, 2012, Felder filed her petition under the Hague Convention in federal district court. Respondents Ponder and Wetzel, in addition to seeking the dismissal of Felder's petition, raised two Article 13 defenses under the Convention: that K.W.'s return to Switzerland would present a grave risk of harm to her, and that K.W. was of sufficient age and maturity that her objections to being returned to Switzerland should be heeded. Felder had by this time also sought recourse from the Swiss Guardianship Authority. On July 11, 2012, the Swiss Authority issued a "Decree" subtitled "Repeal of  precautionary order of June 21, 2012," in which it observed that by "letter dated June  27, 2012, the biological mother ... requested reconsideration of the precautionary  decision of June 21, 2012 and its complete repeal." The decree did in fact repeal the
precautionary order, with an explanation. On July 11, 2012, Felder filed an "Emergency Motion by Mother Claudia Felder to Vacate Temporary Guardianship" in the Massachusetts Family Court. Apparently, K.W. had been discharged from the Hospital and was staying with Ponder. At the close of the hearing, the Family Court "enter[ed] a finding, that the most recent order from the Swiss courts [i.e., the June 21, 2012 precautionary injunction], quote, withdraws mother's custody rights" and stated that "it is not clear to me ... that it is-it had been reinstated."Explaining that "I have to do what's in [K.W.'s] best interest and right now, I need to preserve the status quo," the court, in a handwritten order, denied Felder's emergency petition "pending the hearing in Federal Court." On July 2, 2012, Felder had also filed a court complaint in Switzerland seeking to reverse the Guardianship Authority's June 21, 2012 precautionary order. The July 11, 2012 decree was issued in the interim. On July 12, 2012 the District Court of Lucerne ruled on Felder's petition, concluding that "[w]ith the [Authority's] 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."

       On July 20, 2012, the federal court conducted oral argument on Wetzel's motion to dismiss Felder's petition under the Convention but did not take evidence. On July 30, 2012, the federal district court dismissed Felder's petition. Felder, 2012 WL 3128570, at *1. The district court concluded that K.W.'s state of habitual residence was Switzerland. It looked to Swiss law and the orders of the Swiss authorities to determine that "as of June 21st, the Guardianship Authority took the action that it was empowered to take and revoked Felder's parental custody," and that "the Guardianship Authority's subsequent rulings did not unequivocally reinstate her custody rights," The district court reasoned that "the one authority, the Guardianship Authority, that has the power to determine custody rights, did not decline to take further action, but instead deferred to the actions of the Probate and Family Court in the United States." The court concluded that "Felder has failed to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, the wrongful retention of K.W. in the United States."

         The First Circuit reversed. It observed that the district court's reasoning in dismissing Felder's petition was based on its reading of the various orders of the Swiss authorities and court. It concluded that these orders were not designed to nor did they terminate the mother's rights. It analyzed each order and reached the conclusion that there was an attempt to do no more than cope with an emergency situation as to K.W., which the Guardianship Authority concluded required prompt action and which was better not taken from abroad, but immediately addressed by courts, doctors, and others concerned on the scene. The first Swiss Authority order, the June 21, 2012 order, was, as it stated, only a "precautionary injunction"; it was ex parte and in the nature of a temporary emergency order. The June 25, 2012 Guardianship Authority letter to the Hospital explained its June 21, 2012 order as being based on "the [present] urgent need for action" and a fear the American authorities would otherwise not act as needed in the best interests of the child. In light of the emergency nature of the measures taken, it would be incorrect to conclude that these decisions decisively and permanently altered Felder's custody rights over K.W. under Swiss law. They did not strip Felder of her right under the Convention to seek K.W.'s return and to have custody over her child decided by K.W .'s state of habitual residence. It was clear from the Swiss Guardianship Authority's July 11, 2012 decree that the prior order, the Authority's June 21, 2012 temporary revocation of some of Felder's custody rights, had itself been revoked. The decree expressly stated that: * Felder is "entitled to custody" of K.W.; both Felder and K .W. reside in Switzerland. This reading was strongly buttressed by the authoritative Swiss District Court's July 12, 2012 order dismissing Felder's complaint that the June 21, 2012 precautionary order should be reversed. The Lucerne District Court's July 12, 2012 order stated that "the revocation of the complainant's parental custody ordered by the custodianship authorities of Lucerne [has] become[ ] obsolete. The complainant no longer has any legally protected interests in continuing the proceedings before the Lucerne District Court." These later orders established that as of July 12, 2012, any temporary revocation by the Swiss authorities of some of Felder's custody rights over K.W. had itself been revoked. Felder had custody rights under the Convention.

         Two defenses were raised under Article 13 of the Convention: (1) that K.W .'s return to Switzerland would present a grave risk of harm to her, and (2) that K.W. was of sufficient age and maturity (she was almost fifteen) that her objections to being returned to Switzerland had to be heeded. The First Circuit directed that these exceptions to return, must be heard on remand. It reversed the dismissal of Felder's petition under the Convention, reinstated the case, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.