After Lee departed Singapore, Souratgar filed a petition in the Southern District of New York seeking the return of Shayan to Singapore as provided by the Hague Convention and ICARA. After a hearing the district court granted the petition after concluding that Souratgar had established a prima facie case under the Hague Convention and that Lee had failed to prove either of her two asserted affirmative defenses. See Souratgar I, 2012 WL 6700214, at *4–17. Lee appealed, and a the Court affirmed the judgment. Souratgar II, 720 F.3d at 100. Souratgar then moved in the district court for an order directing Lee to pay his expenses related to Shayan’s return to Singapore. Lee argued that an order directing her to pay Souratgar’s expenses would be clearly inappropriate for two reasons: (1) “Souratgar’s past abusive behavior” against Lee and (2) Lee’s “inability to pay.” The district court determined that neither argument was persuasive.
Lee had argued that Article 13(b) should apply as a defense to return because, if returned to Singapore, Shayan would face a grave risk of physical and psychological harm due to Souratgar’s violence. The district court ultimately disagreed, finding no risk of physical or psychological harm to Shayan. In coming to this conclusion, the district court considered and made numerous factual findings about each party’s allegations of abuse at the hands of the other.
The district court considered Lee’s allegations that Souratgar: (1) on May 31, 2008, when Lee was pregnant, “hit and kicked her on her head and body,” ; (2) in March 2009, “struck her multiple times on her right shoulder while the child was breastfeeding in her arms,” ; (3) during an argument in late 2009 or early 2010, “took the child out of her arms and started to beat her on the head and back,” ; (4) on January 5, 2010, followed Lee to a neighbor’s house and pulled her back into the marital home, where Souratgar “continued to beat her” causing “scratches and redness on her arms where he had grabbed her,” ; (5) on August 15, 2011, when Lee met Souratgar at his office to pick up packages that belonged to her, “pulled [Lee’s] hands and also pushed” her, from which she “suffered some bruises and scratches on” her chest and hands,; (6) on November 22, 2011, chased Lee by car, attempting to overtake her vehicle “in a reckless and dangerous manner,” and (7) “forced [Lee] to engage in certain sexual acts,” The district court discredited some of these allegations, including the allegation of sexual assault, but found most of them to be credible. The district court made a factual finding that Souratgar perpetrated repeated acts of intimate partner violence against Lee.
By contrast, the district court considered Souratgar’s allegation that Lee “had tried to attack him with a knife and chopper a few times,” but found Souratgar’s “account to be exaggerated and not credible. Nowhere in the district court’s decision is there any other suggestion that Lee had committed any violence, nor have we found any in our independent review of the record.
The Second Circuit observed that ICARA’s presumption of an award of expenses to a prevailing petitioner is subject to a broad caveat denoted by the words, ‘clearly inappropriate.’ “ Whallon v. Lynn, 356 F.3d 138, 140 (1st Cir.2004). This caveat retains “the equitable nature of cost awards,” so that a prevailing petitioner’s presumptive entitlement to an award of expenses is “subject to the application of equitable principles by the district court.” Generally, in determining whether expenses are “clearly inappropriate,” courts have considered the degree to which the petitioner bears responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the fees and costs associated with a petition. Where, as here, the respondent’s removal of the child from the habitual country is related to intimate partner violence perpetrated by the petitioner against the respondent, the petitioner bears some responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the petition. In line with this reasoning, district courts in other circuits have concluded that “family violence perpetrated by a parent is an appropriate consideration in assessing fees in a Hague case.”
The Second Circuit held that the district court was therefore correct to consider Souratgar’s unilateral violence in its determination of whether to order Lee to pay expenses under ICARA. See Souratgar III, 2014 WL 704037, at *9. However, it concluded that the district court exceeded its discretion in awarding expenses to Souratgar in light of its fact-finding and its related analysis of the relevant equitable factors. In the course of reviewing the petition, the district court made explicit factual findings that Lee had not committed the violent acts alleged by Souratgar but that Souratgar had repeatedly perpetrated violence against her. Souratgar I, 2012 WL 6700214, at *11. But because Lee had fled the marital home to her sister’s home within Singapore before fleeing the country, the district court found that she “ha[d] not established that the past abuse of her was causally related to her decision to leave Singapore.” Souratgar III, 2014 WL 704037, at *9. The Second Circuit differed with the district court’s conclusion on this point. First, this finding was belied by the record: The district court found that Souratgar’s violence toward Lee did not stop when she left their home. See Souratgar I, 2012 WL 6700214, at *9, *11 (discussing violent incidents in August 2011 and November 2011, after her May 2011 departure from the marital home). Second, it found that Lee’s testimony showed, and Souratgar did not genuinely dispute, that her departure was related to Souratgar’s history of intimate partner violence. Therefore, it found that Souratgar bears some responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the petition.
Having reviewed all relevant equitable factors, because the respondent had shown that the petitioner engaged in multiple, unilateral acts of intimate partner violence against her and that her removal of the child from the habitual country was related to that violence, and because there were no countervailing factors in the record in favor of the petitioner, the Second Circuit held that an award of expenses would be “clearly inappropriate.”
In so holding, the Court expressed no opinion about circumstances beyond the facts of this appeal, particularly where countervailing equitable factors are present. It specified that it did not attempt to catalog the possible countervailing equitable factors that a district court may properly weigh. This task is better left to the district courts to develop on a case-by-case basis so that they retain “broad discretion” in applying equitable principles to implement “the Hague Convention consistently with our own laws and standards.” As a matter of clarification, it agreed with the district court that a respondent’s inability to pay an award is a relevant equitable factor for courts to consider in awarding expenses under ICARA. It noted that intimate partner violence in any form is deplorable, but found that it need not determine in this matter what quantum of violence must have occurred to warrant a finding that fees are “clearly inappropriate,” given the repeated violence established in the record here. Those determinations it left to be resolved as they arise in future cases.
Given the record in this case, rather than remand, it could not envision any scenario where an award of expenses would not be clearly inappropriate, and therefore reversed the order and vacated the judgment.