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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Martinez v Cahue, 2016 WL 3457617 (7th Cir, 2016) [Mexico] [Habitual Residence] [Rights of Custody] [Petition denied]

In Martinez v Cahue, 2016 WL 3457617 (7th Cir, 2016) the first seven years of A.M.'s life, he lived in Illinois with his mother, Jaded Mahelet Ruvalcaba Martinez. He was born in Chicago in 2006. A.M.'s father, Peter Valdez Cahue, lived nearby, although he and Martinez never married. They entered into a private arrangement, never formalized through a court order, for custody and visitation rights. In 2013, Martinez moved to Mexico and took A.M. with her. About a year later, Cahue persuaded Martinez to send A.M. to Illinois for a visit; he then refused to return A.M. to Mexico.

            The district court held an evidentiary hearing, after which it determined that there was sufficient evidence that A.M. had acclimatized to Mexico during the year he lived there with his mother. It also found, however, that Cahue and Martinez did not jointly intend that A.M. should move to Mexico in the first place. It said, Martinez took A.M. to Mexico without Cahue's permission or knowledge (presumably about the permanence of the move—Cahue admitted that he knew about the trip). Emphasizing the absence of shared parental intent, the district court held that Illinois had remained A.M.'s habitual residence during the year he spent in Mexico, and thus Martinez's petition had to be dismissed.

            The Seventh Circuit reversed. It concluded that the district court asked the wrong question, and thus came to the wrong answer. It found that at all relevant times, Martinez had sole custody of A.M. under Illinois law, while Cahue had no right of custody either under Illinois law or the Convention. That meant that only Martinez's intent mattered, and it was plain that Martinez wanted A.M.'s habitual residence transferred to Mexico. Cahue's retention of A.M. in Illinois was therefore wrongful and he had to be returned to Mexico.

            The Court found that Martinez's initial removal of A.M. to Mexico in July 2013 was not subject to any legal restrictions that might allow Cahue's intent to affect the analysis. Cahue never obtained rights of custody for Convention purposes under these statutes, nor was Martinez's right to relocate A.M. constrained by them. In the absence of a court order, Illinois law presumes that the mother of a child born out of wedlock has sole custody. See 720 ILCS 5/10–5(a)(3) (2013) Cahue did not obtain a custody order during the time that mattered. When Martinez moved to Mexico with A.M., she may have violated the terms of the couple's private custody agreement. But the move did not violate a right of custody for Convention purposes. Martinez's removal of A.M. to Mexico was therefore not wrongful. Nor did it violate Illinois law. Because only Martinez has rights of custody under the Convention, and Illinois law did not in any way restrict her right to move away from the country with her son, only her intent was of legal significance.

            The second key consideration in determining habitual residence is the extent to which the child has acclimatized to one or the other place. The district court found that by August 2014, A.M. had acclimatized to Mexico. While A.M. had spent most of his life in Illinois, that fact is not dispositive. (That would create the kind of formulaic, ratio-based test that appears nowhere in the Convention.) The Seventh Circuit found that by the end of his first year in Mexico, he displayed all of the indicia of habitual residence, including friends, extended family, success in school, and participating in community and religious activities.
          Based on Martinez's intent that he change habitual residence, the lack of any right on Cahue's part to veto her preference, and A.M.'s own successful acclimatization, the Court conclued  that Mexico was A.M.'s habitual residence at the time Cahue acted to retain him in the United States.   Because the district court found that A.M.'s habitual residence was Illinois, it had no reason to evaluate the wrongfulness of Cahue's 2014 retention of A.M., or any possible defenses that Cahue might have raised.

            Cahue admitted  that he retained A.M. in Illinois without Martinez's consent. In doing so, he violated her rights of custody under Mexican law. See Civil Code for the State of Aguascalientes, arts. 434, 437, 440–41; Garcia, 808 F.3d at 1164 (noting that the right called patria potestas is “a ‘right of custody’ under the Convention” that is conferred to both parents, and whose “central values” are “fairness and reciprocity”).  

            Because Cahue's retention of A.M. in July 2014 was wrongful, A.M. had to be returned to Martinez unless Cahue can show that either of the two defenses he presented applies: that A.M. is now so “settled in [his] new environment” that he should not be returned, see Convention art. 12, T.I.A.S. No. 11670, or that Martinez “subsequently acquiesced in the ... retention,” see id. art. 13(a). The  record did not support the applicability of the “settled-child” defense, and did not not support a finding that Martinez ever acquiesced in Cahue's actions.