Thursday, May 2, 2013
Chafin v Chafin, --- S.Ct. ----, 2013 WL 598436 (U.S.) [Scotland][ Federal & State Judicial Remedies - Appeals - Mootness]
In Chafin v Chafin, --- S.Ct. ----, 2013 WL 598436 (U.S.) Petitioner Jeffrey Lee Chafin was a citizen of the United States and a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany in 2006, he married respondent Lynne Hales Chafin, a citizen of the United Kingdom. Their daughter E.C. was born the following year. Later in 2007, Mr. Chafin was deployed to Afghanistan, and Ms. Chafin took E.C. to Scotland. Mr. Chafin was eventually transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, and in February 2010, Ms. Chafin traveled to Alabama with E.C. Soon thereafter, Mr. Chafin filed for divorce and for child custody in Alabama state court. Towards the end of the year, Ms. Chafin was arrested for domestic violence, an incident that alerted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to the fact that she had overstayed her visa. She was deported in February 2011, and E.C. remained in Mr. Chafin's care for several more months. In May 2011, Ms. Chafin initiated this case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. She filed a petition under the Convention and ICARA seeking an order for E. C.'s return to Scotland. On October 11 and 12, 2011, the District Court held a bench trial. Upon the close of arguments, the court ruled in favor of Ms. Chafin, concluding that E. C.'s country of habitual residence was Scotland and granting the petition for return. Mr. Chafin immediately moved for a stay pending appeal, but the court denied his request. Within hours, Ms. Chafin left the country with E. C., headed for Scotland. By December 2011, she had initiated custody proceedings there. The Scottish court soon granted her interim custody and a preliminary injunction, prohibiting Mr. Chafin from removing E.C. from Scotland. In the meantime, Mr. Chafin had appealed the District Court order to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In February 2012, the Eleventh Circuit dismissed Mr. Chafin's appeal as moot in a one-paragraph order, citing Bekier v. Bekier, 248 F.3d 1051 (2001). In Bekier, the Eleventh Circuit had concluded that an appeal of a Convention return order was moot when the child had been returned to the foreign country, because the court "became powerless" to grant relief. 248 F.3d, at 1055. In accordance with Bekier, the Court of Appeals remanded this case to the District Court with instructions to dismiss the suit as moot and vacate its order. On remand, the District Court did so, and also ordered Mr. Chafin to pay Ms. Chafin over $94,000 in court costs, attorney's fees, and travel expenses. Meanwhile, the Alabama state court had dismissed the child custody proceeding initiated by Mr. Chafin for lack of jurisdiction. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals affirmed, relying in part on the U.S. District Court's finding that the child's habitual residence was not Alabama, but Scotland.
The Supreme Court in an opinion for a unanimous Court by Chief Justice Roberts held that father's appeal from the order entered by the district court was not rendered "moot" by fact that mother had returned with daughter to Scotland, abrogating the Eleventh Circuit opinion in Bekier v. Bekier, 248 F.3d 1051. It held that a case "becomes moot only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party. As long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of t he litigation, the case is not moot. Because the Chafins continued to vigorously contest the question of where their daughter will be raised, this dispute was very much alive. This case did not address "a hypothetical state of facts," ,and there continued to exist between the parties "that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues. Mr. Chafin sought typical appellate relief: reversal of the District Court determination that E. C.'s habitual residence was Scotland and, upon reversal, an order that E.C. be returned to the United States. The question was whether such relief would be effectual. In arguing that this case was moot because the District Court has no authority to issue a re-return order either under the Convention or pursuant to its inherent equitable powers, Ms. Chafin confused mootness with the merits. Mr. Chafin's claim for re-return could not be dismissed as so implausible that it is insufficient to preserve jurisdiction, and his prospects of success are therefore not pertinent to the mootness inquiry. As to the effectiveness of any relief, even if Scotland were to ignore a re-return order, this case would not be moot. The U.S. courts continue to have personal jurisdiction over Ms. Chafin and may command her to take action under threat of sanctions. She could decide to comply with an order against her and return E.C. to the United States. Enforcement of the order may be uncertain if Ms. Chafin chose to defy it, but such uncertainty does not typically render cases moot.
Mr. Chafin also sought vacatur of the District Court's expense orders. That too is common relief on appeal, and the mootness inquiry comes down to its effectiveness. In contending that this case is moot due to Mr. Chafin's failure to pursue an appeal of the expense orders, which were entered as separate judgments, Ms. Chafin again confused mootness with the merits. Because there is authority for the proposition that failure to appeal such judgments separately does not preclude relief, it is for lower courts at later stages of the litigation to decide whether Mr. Chafin is in fact entitled to the relief he seeks. That relief would not be " 'fully satisfactory,' " but "even the availability of a 'partial remedy' is 'sufficient to prevent [a] case from being moot.
Justice Roberts noted that manipulating constitutional doctrine and holding these cases moot is not necessary to achieve the ends of the Convention and ICARA, and may undermine the treaty's goals and harm the children meant to be protected. If these cases were to become moot upon return, courts would be more likely to grant stays as a matter of course, to prevent the loss of any right to appeal. Such routine stays would
conflict with the Convention's mandate of prompt return. He stated that Courts should apply the four traditional stay factors in considering whether to stay a return order: " '(1) whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies.' " Nken v. Holder, 556 U.S. 418, 434, 129 S.Ct. 1749, 173 L.Ed.2d 550 (2009) (quoting Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 776, 107 S.Ct. 2113, 95 L.Ed.2d 724 (1987)). In every case under the Hague Convention, the well-being of a child is at stake; application of the traditional stay factors ensures that each case will receive the individualized treatment necessary for appropriate consideration of the child's best interests. He pointed out that “Importantly, whether at the district or appellate court level, courts can and
should take steps to decide these cases as expeditiously as possible, for the sake of the children who find themselves in such an unfortunate situation. Many courts already do so....Cases in American courts often take over two years from filing to resolution; for a six-year-old such as E. C., that is one-third of her lifetime. Expedition will help minimize the extent to which uncertainty adds to the challenges confronting both parents and child.
The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit was vacated, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.