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Monday, May 23, 2016

Rodriguez v Yanez, 2016 WL 1212412 (5th Cir., 2016)[Mexico] [Exercise of Rights of Custody] [age and maturity defense] [Further development of the record required to determine whether child objected to return to Mexico]

In Rodriguez v Yanez, 2016 WL 1212412 (5th Cir., 2016) Appellant Pedro Antonio Flores Rodriguez (“Flores”) and Appellee Yolanda Ivonne Salgado Yanez (“Salgado”) were the parents of A.S.F.S., an eleven-year-old girl. A.S.F.S. was born in Chihuahua, Mexico on January 6, 2005. A.S.F.S. lived in Mexico until October 2013, when Salgado took her to the United States without Flores’s permission. On July 17, 2014, Flores filed a petition in the Eastern District of Texas seeking the return of A.S.F.S. to Mexico.

The district court appointed a guardian ad litem for A.S.F.S. and held a show cause hearing. After Flores and Salgado completed their testimony, the district court briefly questioned A.S.F.S. in chambers. A.S.F.S. testified that her relationship with her father was poor. She indicated that Flores never spent time with her and did not even speak to her except to ask questions about Salgado’s love life. A.S.F.S. explained that she “would just go to [her] room” when Flores visited Chihuahua because “he was always drunk” and would say “ugly things ... [l]ike dirty words.” She characterized the relationship between her parents as “[f]ighting” and reported that she had seen Flores “push[ ]” Salgado. At two different points, the district court asked A.S.F.S. whether she was happier living in Mexico or the United States. A.S.F.S. testified that she was happier in Texas, although she was happy living in Mexico too.

In December 2014, the district court issued a decision in Salgado’s favor. The district court denied Flores’s petition because he “was not exercising his custody rights at the time of A.S.F.S.’s removal to the United States.” The district court also denied Flores’s petition for the independent reason that A.S.F.S. “objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of [her] views.”

Upon de novo review, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Flores was exercising his custody rights at the time of removal. Salgado testified  that Flores visited A.S.F.S. at least once every six weeks, or around 8 times a year. Salgado also conceded in her brief that Flores “paid the fees” for A.S.F.S.’s public school in Chihuahua.19 “By visiting [A.S.F.S.] and contributing to [her] financial support,” Flores was exercising his custody rights. Despite these clear parallels, Salgado urges that her “mistress relationship” with Flores distinguished this case. That is, like the district court, she contended that any contact that Flores had with A.S.F.S. was merely incidental to seeing her. The Fifth Circuit held that such arguments, however, go to whether Flores was exercising his “custody rights well or badly.” Regardless of whether Flores was interested in seeing A.S.F.S. when he traveled to Chihuahua, the record was undisputed that he did maintain some sort of relationship with her, which is enough to demonstrate exercise. 
Accordingly, the district court erred in concluding that Flores was not exercising his custody rights at the time of removal.

The Fifth Circuit observed that in order to establish the age and maturity defense Salgado had to  establish two distinct facts: (a) A.S.F.S. “has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of [her] views”; and (b) A.S.F.S. “objects to being returned.” The main thrust of Flores’s briefing was that Salgado has not established that A.S.F.S. “objects to being returned.” The Court noted that is has “declined to hold, as a matter of law, that any particular age is sufficient or insufficient to meet the defense.” Whether A.S.F.S. “objects to being returned” was more difficult. Salgado and A.S.F.S.’s guardian ad litem both assert that “A.S.F.S. listed [the following] reasons for her objection to returning to Mexico:” • Her father’s psychological harassment of her mother;• Her father’s physical abuse of her mother; • Her father’s use of foul language; • His interrogation of her for information on her mother; • Her fear of her father.

Flores argued that these reasons cannot form the basis of an objection under the Convention. He contended that a wrongfully removed child may not object to returning to her country of habitual residence because she does not want to live with the petitioning parent. The Fifth Circuit held that whether the child wants to live with the abducting parent is very relevant to her interpretation of her immediate “interests.” Indeed, it is likely the most important consideration. A rule formally prohibiting objections based upon this consideration would result in hearings full of winks and nods. An objection by the child to being returned, if found to be a considered and mature decision, will be honored whether or not it rests in part on her objection to living with the abducting parent.  In its order, the district court found that it was “appropriate to take into account A.S.F.S.’s views” because she “exhibited strong cognitive and social abilities, and clearly expressed a desire to remain with [Salgado] in the United States.” The court also noted that A.S.F.S.’s testimony “that she would be happier remaining in the United States because she would have greater educational opportunities, and the ability to learn more languages” “[f]urther confirm[ed] her maturity.” Although these findings adequately explained why A.S.F.S. was mature enough to object, they only hinted at whether she did object and, if so, for what reasons. Rather than speculate, the Fifth Circuit vacated this portion of the district court’s order and remanded to allow the court to reassess whether Salgado had met her burden in light of the legal principles established by the decision. On remand, the district court was ordered to engage in a new colloquy with A.S.F.S. and enter more detailed findings regarding its eventual conclusion.

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