Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Hofmann v Sender,--- F.3d ----, 2013 WL 1955846 (C.A.2) [Canada] [Habitual Residence] [Consent or Acquiesence]
In Hofmann v Sender,--- F.3d ----, 2013 WL 1955846 (C.A.2) the Petitioner–Appellee father initiated proceedings for return of his children to Canada. petitioner Adam Hofmann was a Canadian citizen. He was born, raised, educated, and continued to work in Montreal, Quebec. He was not a citizen of, nor did he have a visa to work in any other country. Respondent Abigail Sender was a United States citizen. She was born and raised in the United States and attended medical school beginning in 1999 at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. She was formerly a permanent resident of Canada. At one time she applied for, but never received, Canadian citizenship. Hofmann and Sender met and began dating while they were residing in Montreal and serving as medical residents at McGill. Both parties earned medical degrees that were recognized as the equivalent of a comparable degree in the United States. Hofmann, however, was unable to work in the United States due to his immigration status. In Montreal, the parties attended the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. They were married there in February 2008 and lived together in Montreal as husband and wife until May or June of 2011. Their first son, R, was born in Montreal in January, 2009. After the baby's birth, Sender traveled to New York so that her family could help her care for the child. Id. In the fall of 2009, Hofmann took two months of unpaid leave in order to spend time with his wife and child at the home of his in-laws in New York. Id. At that time, Hofmann and Sender discussed their marital difficulties, including problems they were having with their families. They also discussed the possibility of having a second child and of relocating outside of Canada. Id. They took various trips to communities in New York and New Jersey in order to see whether any would make a suitable future home. They were particularly concerned about finding an Orthodox Jewish community where they could raise their family. The wife retained the children in New York on September 5, 2012,
The district court concluded that the parties' children were habitually resident in Canada; and although Hofmann had consented to the children's removal to the United States, that consent was a conditional one, contingent on his accompanying them and residing with them and Sender as a family in the United States. The district court found, therefore, that the parties' last shared intent with respect to the children's residence was for the children to reside in Canada. (citing Mota v. Castillo, 692 F.3d 108 (2d Cir.2012)). The district court also concluded that the children had not become so acclimated to New York that a return to Canada would be harmful to them,, and because the wrongful retention of the children under the Hague Convention occurred on September 5, 2012, when Sender had Hofmann served with divorce papers, the affirmative defense that the children were well settled in the United States did not apply. The district court also found that the affirmative defenses of consent and acquiescence did not apply. The court granted Hofmann's petition and ordered that the children be returned to Canada, enabling the Canadian courts to determine issues of parental custody. Subsequently, the Quebec Superior Court, Family Division issued an order granting temporary sole custody to the Respondent–Appellant Sender and directing that the children be returned to New York. A further hearing is scheduled in Montreal on May 23, 2013. The Quebec Superior Court awarded Petitioner–Appellee Hofmann visitation and phone access rights.
On appeal, the parties did not dispute that Hofmann had custody rights under Quebec law, which he was exercising at the time the children were retained by Sender. To determine which country is a child's country of habitual residence under the Hague Convention, the Second Circuit applied the two-part test set forth in Gitter v. Gitter. There it held that: "First, the court should inquire into the shared intent of those entitled to fix the child's residence (usually the parents) at the latest time that their intent was shared. In making this determination the court should look, as always in determining intent, at actions as well as declarations. Normally the shared intent of the parents should control the habitual residence of the child. Second, the court should inquire whether the evidence unequivocally points to the conclusion that the child has acclimatized to the new location and thus has acquired a new habitual residence, notwithstanding any conflict with the parents' latest shared intent." Gitter, 396 F.3d at 134.
Here, the district court determined, that the last shared intent of the parties was that the children would reside in Canada. Correlatively, the court also found that at the time the parties were transitioning from Montreal to New York, Hofmann only intended the children to reside habitually in New York if he was also resident in New York with his children and his wife, as a family. The district court's decision was amply supported by the record, Turning to the law applicable to the resolution of this issue on appeal it observed that in Mota it considered whether the father's retention of a child was wrongful under the Hague Convention when the mother's consent to the child coming to the United States was conditional, based on the mother's also being able to join the child and the father in this country. In that case the child, Elena Mota, lived with her mother in Mexico until approximately the age of three. Mota, 692 F.3d at 110. When Elena was six months old, her father had entered the United States illegally to find work. In the spring of 2010 the family decided to attempt to reunite in New York. Id. The plan was to pay to have Elena smuggled across the border. Id. The mother would then attempt to cross the border herself, and mother and child would travel together to New York. Id. Elena was successfully smuggled into the United States, but her mother was unable to cross the border. Id. Elena was reunited with her father, who proceeded to keep her in New York. He subsequently took up residence with another woman, and he stopped sending money to Mexico to support Elena's mother. Elena's father then refused to return her to Mexico, and her mother filed a petition pursuant to Article 3 of the Convention seeking her return. On appeal, it held that the record supported the district court's determination that the mother's consent to Elena's remaining in New York was conditioned on the mother, father and Elena's living in New York together. Acknowledging the effect of the unmet condition precedent, it affirmed the district court's determination that the last shared intent of the parents regarding Elena's residence was that she live in Mexico. For purposes of the Convention, therefore, Mexico was the "State in which the child was habitually resident." Hague Convention Art. 3.
The decision in Mota directly controlled the outcome in this case. As the district court found, "the petitioner has demonstrated by his testimony and his actions that he intended for the children to relocate to New York on the condition that he would join the household and continue to be the father to his children and the husband to his wife." Just as in Mota, "if the parents [here] did not agree that [the children] would live indefinitely in ... [the United States] regardless of [their father's] presence, it cannot be said that the parents ‘shared an intent’ " that New York would be the children's "state of habitual residence." Mota, 692 F.3d at 115. The district court properly determined under the Convention that the parties' last shared intention regarding the children's residence was that they live in Canada and for that reason the habitual residence of the children remained in Canada.
Turning to the second prong of the Gitter analysis, having concluded that the children were properly determined to be habitually resident in Canada, the court "inquire whether the evidence unequivocally points to the conclusion that the child has acclimatized to the new location and thus has acquired a new habitual residence, notwithstanding any conflict with the parents' last shared intent." Gitter, 396 F.3d at 134. "[C]ourts should be ‘slow to infer’ that the child's acclimatization trumps the parents' shared intent." Id. As it noted in Mota, "[i]t would frustrate the objectives of the Convention if a parent or guardian could secure an advantage in an anticipated custody dispute merely by whisking the child away to a foreign land, and retaining her there long enough to amass evidence of the child's acclimatization to the new location." A finding that this standard is satisfied is therefore only appropriate "in ‘relatively rare circumstances' in which a child's degree of acclimatization is ‘so complete that serious harm ... can be expected to result from compelling his [or her] return to the family's intended residence." Id. It was clear that the children had not become so acclimatized to life in New York that returning them to Canada would be tantamount to removing them from the environment where their lives had developed. While, at this point, the children had resided in New York for over a year, they moved and changed communities within New York recently. There was no basis to conclude that the district court clearly erred in finding that the children were not so acclimatized to life in the United States that a return to Canada would be harmful to them.
Article 13 of the Convention provides that "the judicial or administrative authority of the requested State is not bound to order the return of the child if ... the person ... having care of the person of the child ... consented to or subsequently acquiesced in the removal or retention." The court found that although Hofmann initially consented to the children's removal to the United States, that consent was conditioned upon his accompanying them and residing in this country as a family with his children and wife. "Article 13(a) does not provide that if a parent consents to removal of the child for a period, under certain conditions or circumstances, that retention of the child beyond those conditions or circumstances is necessarily permissible." Because the condition on which Hofmann consented to his children moving to the United States was not met, there was no basis to conclude that he consented to Sender's retention of the children in the United States. The potential defense under Article 13 of the Convention had no application to the facts of this case.
Sender's reliance on the "now settled" exception contained in Article 12 of the Convention was similarly unavailing. Article 12 provides, in relevant part, that: Where a child has been wrongfully removed or retained in terms of Article 3 and, at the date of the commencement of the proceedings before the judicial or administrative authority of the Contracting State where the child is, a period of less than one year has elapsed from the date of the wrongful removal or retention, the authority concerned shall order the return of the child forthwith.
The judicial or administrative authority, even where the proceedings have been commenced after the expiration of the period of one year referred to in the preceding paragraph, shall also order the return of the child, unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment. By its terms, the "now settled" exception only applies where the child has been in the destination state for more than one year from the date of the wrongful removal or retention. The date of wrongful retention in this case was September 5, 2012, Because one year had not elapsed between the wrongful retention of the children and the institution of these proceedings under the convention, the district court's determination that the "now settled" exception did not apply was affirmed.
In Vasconcelos v. Batista, 2013 WL 600200 (C.A.5 (Tex.)) Appellant Eduardo Henrique Vasconcelos petitioned for the return of his child, B.V., to Brazil.
B.V. was 13 years old at the start of district court proceedings in January 2011 and was now 15 years old. In 2005, B.V. was removed from her former place of residence, the State of Alagoas in Brazil, by her mother, Appellee Michelly De Paula Batista. Ms. Batista had primary custody over B.V. pursuant to a joint custody agreement with Mr. Vasconcelos. Ms. Batista and Mr. Vasconcelos were never married. Ms. Batista removed B.V. from Brazil without Mr. Vasconcelos's consent. After leaving Brazil, Ms. Batista moved with B.V. to Denton, Texas, where she married Rod Richards, who has been B.V.'s stepfather since.
The petition was brought before the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The hearing included an in camera interview between a magistrate judge and B.V., in which B.V. was represented by a guardian ad litem and in which she apparently stated her desire to remain in the U.S. and not to meet Mr. Vasconcelos. The District Court denied the petition. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.
The Fifth Circuit in a per curium opinion held that this appeal could be resolved under the Hague Convention's age and maturity exception, and it was unnecessary to discuss the threshold issue of whether Mr. Vasconcelos had established a prima facie case under the Convention. Like the district court, it assumed arguendo that Mr. Vasconcelos had custody rights under Brazilian law, and thus that he successfully established a prima facie case.
The Fifth Circuit observed that the Hague Convention provides that "[t]he judicial or administrative authority [considering a petition] may also refuse to order the return of the child if it finds that the child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views." Hague Convention art. 13. This age and maturity exception is to be narrowly construed and must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. England v. England, 234 F.3d 268, 272 (5th Cir.2000) (citing §§ 11601(a)(4), 11603(e)(2)(A)). It concluded that the district court's findings with respect to this exception were not clearly erroneous. Whether the child has reached an appropriate age and degree of maturity is a factual determination and thus subject to clear error review. See Dietz v. Dietz, 349 F. App'x 930, 934 (5th Cir.2009). "[G]iven the reliance on live oral testimony, ‘the clearly erroneous standard is particularly strong because the judge had the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witness[es].’ " Id. (quoting United States v. Santiago, 410 F.3d 193, 197 (5th Cir.2005)). "The Convention does not set an age at which a child is automatically considered to be sufficiently mature, rather the determination is to be made on a case-by-case basis." Tsai–Yi Yang v. Fu–Chiang Tsui, 499 F.3d 259, 279 (3d Cir.2007). B.V.'s age of 13 at the start of district court proceedings is consonant with that of other children whom courts have found to be of sufficient age and maturity for the purposes of this exception. Mr. Vasconcelos's only cogent argument regarding B.V.'s age and maturity was that Ms. Batista unduly influenced B.V.'s opinion and tainted B.V.'s judgment. In particular, Mr. Vasconcelos contended that "over the approximately 5 years since the abduction, [Ms. Batista] told B.V. that Mr. Vasconcelos was violent towards her and that he hit her, ‘gradually’ adding more detail to the story as B.V. became ‘able to absorb and process according to her age.’ " Mr. Vasconcelos cited the Third Circuit, which stated that "[i]n making its determination, a court should also consider whether a child's desire to remain or return to a place is ‘the product of undue influence,’ in which case the ‘child's wishes' should not be considered." Tsai–Yi Yang, 499 F.3d at 279.
The Court held that Mr. Vasconcelos's argument could not prevail under a clear error standard. First, even if it accepted that there was some evidence that B.V. had a skewed perception of Mr. Vasconcelos, it was not convinced that that evidence rose to the level of undue influence such that the district court clearly erred in its age and maturity findings. Notably, there was no evidence that Ms. Batista coerced B.V. into objecting to return. Ms. Batista's testimony reflected that she was sensitive to B.V.'s youth and did not want to influence B.V.'s opinions too soon. Even if B.V.'s perception of her biological father was one-sided, that one-sidedness stemmed in great part from the fact that Mr. Vasconcelos never reached out to B.V. from the time she was taken from Brazil up until the start of these proceedings, although he knew B.V.'s whereabouts, knew how to contact her, and had authorization to travel outside Brazil.
The Fifth Circuit disagreed with Mr. Vasconcelos's suggestion that B.V.'s in camera interview was an improper basis for the district court's age and maturity findings. The interview was conducted by the magistrate judge, during which B.V. was represented by an attorney ad litem. After the interview, the magistrate judge found that [I]t is appropriate to take into account BV's views here. Although softspoken and understandably shaken by the prospect of leaving the United States, she demonstrated an understanding of the proceedings and of her right to state her preferences. She was a good student, demonstrated clear cognitive abilities, and stated a desire to remain with her mother and stepfather. The Court found that her wishes were another basis to deny Petitioner's request for her return to Brazil." These findings were perfectly reasonable, and Mr. Vasconcelos had not argued that the interview was somehow defective under Texas law.
The question of whether B.V. was of sufficient age and maturity was a fact-intensive inquiry. Mr. Vasconcelos gave the Fifth Circuit no reason to second-guess the district court, which had a unique "opportunity to observe [the child] in person."
The Court pointed out that even if B.V. was of sufficient age and maturity for her views to be taken into account, the age and maturity exception is not satisfied unless B.V. also objects to her return. Hague Convention art. 13. Although there was no case law directly on-point, it was logical to assume that the question of whether B.V. objected is fact-intensive, and thus the district court's finding that she objected was subject to clear error review. See de Silva, 481 F.3d at 1287. A child's "generalized desire" to remain in the United States is "not necessarily sufficient to invoke the exception"; rather, the child must "include particularized objections to returning to" the former country of residence. Tsai–Yi Yang, 499 F.3d at 279.
Mr. Vasconcelos argued that the Hague Convention requires B.V. to "clear[ly] object" to her return to Brazil. To show that B.V. did not clearly object, he cited the district court's statements that B.V. only "expressed an interest to remain here," and that B.V. only "stated a desire to remain with her mother and stepfather." Inasmuch as Mr. Vasconcelos sought to argue that the Hague Convention requires an explicit objection from B.V., the Court found that the case law did not support him. If found that the Tenth Circuit's decision in de Silva undercut his argument. In de Silva, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding that the age and maturity exception applied. The court quoted approvingly the findings of the magistrate judge, who conducted an in camera interview with the 13–year–old child. At no point in de Silva did the child explicitly object to being returned to his country of former residence, namely Canada. Nevertheless, the Tenth Circuit found it sufficient that the child was mature and had expressed his preference for staying in the United States. Therefore, de Silva contradicted Mr. Vasconcelos's contention that the child's objection need be explicit. The facts in de Silva contrast with those in Tsai–Yi Yang, in which the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to not apply the age and maturity exception because of the child's "generalized desire to remain in" the United States. 499 F.3d at 279. Here, B.V. has not expressed a mere generalized desire or preference to stay in the United States. During her in camera interview with the magistrate judge, in which she was represented by an attorney ad litem, she specifically expressed that she did not want to visit her father while he was in the United States. She also "demonstrated an understanding of the proceedings and of her right to state her preferences" and she "stated a desire to remain with her mother and stepfather." Further, B.V.'s express desire to stay with her mother and stepfather in the United States does not derive merely from some generalized affinity for this country after having lived here a long time. Rather, she had particularized ties to the United States, whereas she had virtually no ties to Brazil and barely any knowledge of Mr. Vasconcelos, who had done nothing to communicate with her since she left Brazil. It was reasonable for the district court to conclude from these facts that B.V. did not simply "like" being in the United States, but specifically wished to stay here and to not be with Mr. Vasconcelos. It therefore concluded that the district court did not err in finding that B.V.'s statements constituted an objection within the meaning of the age and maturity exception.