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Monday, December 15, 2014

Rehder v Rehder, 2014 WL 6982530 ( W.D. Wash) [Germany] [Habitual Residence] [Rights of Custody] [Petition granted]

In Rehder v Rehder, 2014 WL 6982530 ( W.D. Wash) the Court granted Frank Rehder's petition for return of his son, ARDR, to Germany.  Frank Rehder and Tanya Rehder met in England in 2007.  Shortly after they started dating, Frank informed Tanya that in 2003 he had entered into an illegitimate marriage with a woman named Shuang Mu. Although still married to Shuang, he assured Tanya that he was in the process of obtaining a divorce.  In April of 2008 Tanya decided to move to New York City to attend acting school. Frank followed her there in May of 2008. Frank showed Tanya what he represented to be divorce papers evidencing the end of his marriage to Shuang.  Frank then proposed to Tanya and they married in New York City on May 19, 2008.   In February 2009, Frank and Tanya moved back to England. Both parties concede that they argued frequently.  Despite their discord, they conceived a child and decided to continue living and working together in England through August 2010.  One month prior to the birth of their child, the couple moved to Leer, Germany to live with Frank's mother.  Their son, ARDR, was born on September 10, 2010 in Germany.  ARDR lived in Germany from the date of his birth until he was removed by his mother to Bellingham, Washington. On July 13, 2013, in a heated exchange over Google Chat, Frank had told Tanya to “use my card and f–––ing go to America and never come back.”  A few days later, on July 18, 2013, he had sent her an email stating “Please respect that I will no further contact anymore. If [ARDR] will get older he will find a letter at my moms house why I cannot re-live [my other son's] story again in my life and decided this way. I will care for him, but it better ends with a big pain than keeps going on with pain and no end.”The email goes on to discuss Frank's poor health and the allocation of insurance money in the event of his death.  
About a month after these communications, on August 19, 2013, Tanya and ARDR boarded a plane headed for Bellingham, Washington. Frank had knowledge of their departure. He gave Tanya permission to use his credit card to purchase the tickets and he drove her and the child to the airport. The parties disputed whether this was a permanent move: Tanya claimed that it was permanent and Frank consented to it, while Frank claimed it was a “relationship break” and that he allowed his son to go with his mother temporarily, until he and Tanya could work things out. 
After arriving in Washington, in September 2013, the child began attending school and also began receiving health benefits. Tanya informed the school that she and the child had planned to return to Germany for three weeks in November 2013, but that they would come back to Washington in December. Tanya also informed the school that Frank eventually planned to join them in Washington. Emails exchanged between Tanya and Frank show that Tanya wished to stay in Washington, but that the couple was trying to work on their relationship. In October 2013, the couple applied for and began receiving benefits for their child from the German government.  In connection with this application, Tanya indicated to the German government that she was at least a part-time resident of Germany.  On November 16, 2013, Tanya and the child returned to Germany.  They stayed with Frank and it appeared that the couple mended their relationship during this period.  On December 5, 2013, Tanya and the child returned to Washington. On December 11, 2013, Tanya emailed Frank and stated “I do love and care for you and miss you and do feel it's right to move forward together.”She also indicated that she was looking into IT jobs and gyms for him here in Washington. On December 16, 2013, Tanya emailed Frank again and stated “I do want to be together with you ... I do also miss you and love you very much” and that their son “misses you tons.” She also advised the child's school that “things went really well in Germany,” that Frank planned to join them in Washington, and that she and the child might be traveling again to Europe in February or March of 2014. Frank flew to Washington on December 31, 2013. He stayed with Tanya and their child until January 11, 2014.  During this trip, Frank signed a form that allowed Tanya to travel with their child between Washington and Canada. After returning to Germany, Frank continued to engage in Skype calls with Tanya and his son. However, towards the end of January 2014, the couple's relationship soured yet again. It became clear that Frank would not be joining them in Washington and that Tanya had no intent of returning to Germany or returning their child to Germany.  On February 5, 2014, Frank sent an email to the child's school informing the administration that he has shared custody and that his child was being wrongfully retained by Tanya in the United States.  On February 19, 2014, Frank emailed Tanya and expressly stated that he never consented to their son staying in Washington permanently. In March, 2014, Frank attended a parent-teacher conference call relating to his son's schooling. On April 8, 2014, Frank attempted to visit his son in Washington, but was stopped at the Canadian border. The border police contacted Tanya and she claimed that Frank was abusive. On May 16, 2014, Tanya filed a petition for invalidity of marriage in Whatcom County and as part of that case sought a custody determination regarding ARDR.  
On August 13, 2014, Frank filed his Hague petition with this court.

  The district court found that Germany was the child’s habitual residence. ARDR was born in Germany, his father's native country, and lived there from the date of his birth, September 10, 2010, until at least August 2013. His day-to-day activities for the majority of his life, therefore, occurred in Germany, not the United States. 

The court rejected Respondents argument that  Frank consented to or acquiesced in a change of the child's habitual residence to the United States. Where a child already has a well-established habitual residence, simple consent to his presence in another forum is not usually enough to shift it there. Mozes v. Mozes, 239 F.3d 1067, 1081 (9th Cir.2001). Rather, the agreement between the parents and the circumstances surrounding it must enable the court to infer a shared intent to abandon the previous habitual residence, such as when there is effective agreement on a stay of indefinite duration. Although Frank made statements such as “use my card and f–––ing go to America and never come back” and “please respect that I will no further contact anymore,” it appeared that these statements were made in fits of anger and not meant literally. Based upon the court's review of the parties' multiple email communications, Google chats and personal declarations, both mother and father appeared to have a penchant for the dramatic. More importantly, the parties' conduct revealed that there was no mutual settled intent to abandon Germany as the child's habitual residence. The parties continued to communicate after Tanya and the child's initial departure to Washington in August 2013 and they appeared to be working on their relationship. Although the child started school in Washington and began receiving health benefits here, he also began receiving benefits in Germany as well. He was registered as at least a part-time German resident until May 2014. Tanya and the child returned to Germany in November 2013 and stayed with Frank for three weeks. Frank then visited them in Washington the following month. The extensive communications between the mother and father, as well as communications with the child's school, revealed that there was some question as to whether ARDR would withdraw from school and return to Europe or whether Frank would attempt to join them here in Washington.  It was not until late January 2014, that it became clear that Tanya intended to stay here indefinitely and that she intended to keep her son here as well. Thus, the court found that Frank did not consent to or acquiesce in a change in the child's habitual residence. The Court observed that to establish a “right of custody” under German law, the petitioner must show that he was married to the child's mother at the time of the child's birth. See German Civil Code § 1626a. Otherwise, he must meet one of the elements of the German Civil Code regarding “parental custody of parents who are not married to one another..German Civil Code § 1626a. The Court found, based on expert testimony, that petitioner failed to present any evidence that he had satisfied any of these alternative methods of obtaining custody rights. The Court found that  German law treats a bigamous marriage as effective until it is dissolved by a court decision. Once it is dissolved, the effect is ex nunc (i.e., moving forward). The experts opinion was that “German law would therefore treat the 2nd marriage as an effective marriage. The child would be regarded as a legitimate child born within the marriage.”  Additionally, the expert stated that the invalidity of the marriage under New York law would not impact her conclusion. She explained that even if New York law considered bigamous marriages as absolutely void ab initio, German law would still “recognize and give effect to such a marriage with regard to the child custody issue, although the marriage itself would be considered to be void ab initio Based upon this testimony the court found that Frank Rehder had “rights of custody” under German law.

  The evidence showed that Frank agreed to allow the child to reside in this forum while he and Tanya worked on their relationship. His signature on a form allowing Tanya to travel with the child across the Canadian border did not change this conclusion. The need for his permission suggested the opposite—that he had custody rights and was exercising them. The evidence showed that the parties had discussed settling together in Washington, returning to Germany, or possibly settling in the UK. As long as these communications were ongoing, Tanya's retention of ARDR in this forum was not “wrongful.”  It became wrongful in late January 2014, when she announced, in derogation of Frank's shared custody rights (including his right to participate in decisions regarding the child's residence and upbringing) that she would remain in Washington with ARDR. Friedrich II held 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.Friedrich II, 78 F.3d at 1066. Once a court determines that the parent exercised custody rights in any manner, the court should stop—completely avoiding the question whether the parent exercised the custody rights well or badly. Here, the evidence did not show a “clear and unequivocal” abandonment of the child. To the contrary, it appeared that Frank Rehder had made efforts to maintain a relationship with his son and exercised his custody rights as soon as it became clear that Tanya intended to dissolve her relationship with Frank and to keep ARDR in Washington indefinitely.