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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Didon v Castillo, --- F.3d ----, 2016 WL 5349733 (3rd Cir., 2016) [Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin] [Habitual Residence] {Petition denied]

  In Didon v Castillo, --- F.3d ----, 2016 WL 5349733 (3rd Cir., 2016) the father sought the return of his two children (A.D. and J.D.),  to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, a 34-square-mile island comprised of two legally distinct, yet highly integrated, countries—French Saint Martin. The Hague Convention is recognized by French Saint Martin (through France), but is not recognized by Dutch Sint Maarten. 
       The family resided in an apartment in Dutch Sint Maarten for three  years before the children were retained in the United States. Throughout this period, although the family resided in Dutch Sint Maarten, it was “primarily oriented” to French Saint Martin “where Didon worked, and where the children attended school, went to doctor’s appointments, etc.  The family’s administrative affairs, such as the children’s insurance, were managed in French Saint Martin.   The district court observed: “The parties’ testimony reveals that the border [between Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin] is so permeable as to be evanescent, and is regularly and readily traversed by residents and travelers alike. ... [F]or most purposes of its residents’ daily life, the island is essentially undivided.”  It highlighted testimony about the family’s extensive contacts with both countries and concluded that “the record facts, in addition to the nature of the island itself, supported a finding that J.D. and A.D. were habitual residents of both [Dutch] Sint Maarten and [French] Saint Martin. The District Court bifurcated the remainder of its analysis. Because Dominguez retained A.D. from his habitual residence in violation of Didon’s custody rights under French law, the District Court concluded that A.D. was “wrongfully” retained under the Hague Convention and granted the petition as to A.D. With respect to J.D., the District Court began by observing that Didon did not have custody rights over J.D. through adoption because his purported “adoption” did not satisfy the requirements of French law to vest custody. Because Didon did not have custody rights over J.D. under French law at the time of retention, the District Court concluded that J.D. was not “wrongfully” retained under the Convention and denied the petition as to J.D.

The Third Circuit reversed. It pointed out that the extraordinary facts of this case required it to decide an issue of first impression: may a child have two “habitual residence” countries at the same time under the Hague Convention (“concurrent habitual residence”)?  It concluded that the text of the Convention does not permit concurrent habitual residence. Rather than referencing “a State” of habitual residence or “the States” of habitual residence, the Convention repeatedly refers to “the State” of habitual residence. Such language is not susceptible to any construction whereby a child may have more than one habitual residence country at a time. This textual conclusion finds support in the Convention’s Explanatory Report. It noted that in concluding that concurrent habitual residence is possible under the Convention, the District Court relied on an earlier Ninth Circuit decision—Mozes v. Mozes, 239 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2001). In Mozes, the Ninth Circuit observed in dicta that, although “the view held by many courts” is that “a person can only have one habitual residence at a time under the Convention,” “[t]he exception would be the rare situation where someone consistently splits time more or less evenly between two locations, so as to retain alternating habitual residences in each.”   After carefully reviewing Mozes, it was not clear to the Court whether the Ninth Circuit was endorsing concurrent habitual residence or alternating habitual residence in that case. To the extent that Mozes could be read to support concurrent habitual residence, it rejected that interpretation of the Hague Convention as inconsistent with the Convention’s unambiguous text, and remaining faithful to the text of the treaty, it held that a child may have only one habitual residence country at a time under the Hague Convention.
        The Third Circuit therefore looked to the ordinary meaning of the term “residence” and concluded that a child must have lived in a country (i.e., had a home)  before that country can be considered her habitual residence under the Hague Convention. It held that the children were habitual residents only of the country in which they “lived”—Dutch Sint Maarten. Because Dutch Sint Maarten does not recognize the Convention, the Convention did not apply to this case. The Third Circuit vacated the District Court’s judgments and dismissed the petition. Because the District Court granted the petition as to A.D., it instructed the District Court to order that A.D. be returned to the United States forthwith.

Delgado v Osuna, --- F.3d ----, 2016 WL 5076017 (5th Cir., 2016) [Venezuela] [Habitual Residence] [Standard of Review] [Petition denied]

  In Delgado v Osuna, --- F.3d ----, 2016 WL 5076017  (5th Cir., 2016) the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district courts denial of  Dr. Delgado’s petition for return of his seven-year-old and four-year-old sons (“J.A.L.O.” and “D.A.L.O.,” to Venezuela. The parties were citizens of Venezuela and the married biological parents of the children, who were born in Venezula,  lived together from 2008 until May 2014. when they moved with their mother to Frisco, Texas. During this time, Dr. Delgado practiced urology. Prior to traveling to the United States in May 2014, Dr. Delgado and Osuna frequently discussed the civil unrest and danger occurring in Venezuela, and they discussed relocating their family to another country. The discussions were motivated by fear for their family, especially the children, after the family was robbed in 2013 in a Venezuelan hotel room while they slept. Additionally, Osuna testified that her uncle and father, had been involved in a military coup to overthrow the Venezuelan government. As a result, she and other members of her family had been threatened by the government, and she believed that her children had also been threatened. Osuna testified that she believed her children were threatened on March 4, 2014, when she was asked to pass a message to her uncle and father to “stop messing with the government.” At the conclusion of the conversation, the men who threatened her said, “Okay, you have a beautiful blondies [children], then take care.”

       The family had previously planned to travel to the United States on May 14, 2014 so that Dr. Delgado could attend the annual Congress of Urology and the children could visit amusement parks. The family obtained six-month tourist visas for the visit. Originally, the family purchased four round-trip tickets arriving in Miami on May 14, 2014 and departing Miami to return to Venezuela on May 26, 2014. Following the March threat to Osuna, one-way tickets were also purchased (sometime between March and May 2014) for Osuna and both children to travel to Osuna’s sister’s home in Frisco, for an undetermined period of time. After the March 2014 threat, Osuna withdrew J.A.L.O. from school in Venezuela, and with Dr. Delgado’s knowledge and approval, she sent J.A.L.O.’s paperwork to the school in Frisco to prepare for his enrollment upon their arrival. The family packed as many belongings as they could fit inside eight suitcases (two per person), which was the maximum allowed by the airline before it charged a fee. Osuna brought all of her and her children’s important documents, including birth certificates, medical records, school records, and her marriage license. Osuna and Dr. Delgado also went to Osuna’s mother’s house to pick out jewelry to bring to the United States. Dr. Delgado also established a bank account in Frisco prior to the trip and deposited money into it.  On May 14, 2014, the family traveled to Miami, Florida. During this trip, Osuna and Dr. Delgado met with Maritza Cifuentes who assisted Osuna and the children with preparing their applications for political asylum in the United States. During the meeting, Dr. Delgado learned that in order to practice urology in the United States, he would have to undergo an additional fourteen years of medical school and/or training. Accordingly, Dr. Delgado decided not to pursue asylum in the United States. On May 25, 2014, Osuna and the children flew to Texas. Dr. Delgado returned to Venezuela one day later. Throughout the spring and summer of 2014, Osuna and the children resided in Frisco, and J.A.L.O. enrolled in school there. On July 9, 2014, Dr. Delgado signed a power of attorney giving Osuna the authority to make decisions regarding medical, educational, and other care for the children while in the United States. Both parties agreed that the power of attorney did not affect either parties’ custody rights. Yet, the parties’ testimony diverged concerning the reason for executing the power of attorney. Dr. Delgado testified that the power of attorney was intended to give Osuna the authority to make medical, educational, and other care-related decisions for the children while they were in the United States. Osuna testified that the power of attorney was executed so that she could pursue the asylum applications for the children. In the fall of 2014, Dr. Delgado packed and sent, through a family member, some winter clothes to Osuna and the children. Osuna testified that even as late as October 2014, Dr. Delgado was aware of the asylum applications and continued to support her in pursuing asylum. Dr. Delgado provided approximately $500 a month to Osuna and the children until December 2014, when he ceased making these payments. Dr. Delgado testified that he requested that Osuna and the children return home in September 2014 because the political situation in Venezuela was improving. She refused. Dr. Delgado testified that his relationship with his wife had deteriorated, and he filed for divorce in January 2015.

        The district court issued a written opinion finding that Dr. Delgado “failed to meet his burden to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the habitual residence of the children was Venezuela, and, thus, failed to demonstrate that the children were wrongfully removed and/or retained in the United States.” 

         The Fifth Circuit observed that it  reviews factual findings for clear error and conclusions of law de novo.” A factual finding survives review so long as it is plausible in the light of the record as a whole. A district court’s determination of a child’s “habitual residence” is a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review.  The mixed standard of review means that the court accept[s] the district court’s historical or narrative facts unless they are clearly erroneous, but exercis [es] plenary review of the court’s choice of and interpretation of legal precepts and its application of those precepts to the facts. It rejected Dr. Delgado’s argument that “the district court ignored Fifth Circuit precedent and applied an erroneous legal standard in its determination of the Children’s habitual residence” and that the factual “record does not support the district court’s finding that the parties shared an intent to abandon Venezuela as the Children’s habitual residence.” It noted that the Convention does not define “habitual residence.” Larbie, 690 F.3d at 310. “The inquiry into a child’s habitual residence is not formulaic; rather it is a fact-intensive determination that necessarily varies with the circumstances of each case.” This circuit has adopted an approach that begins with the parents’ shared intent or settled purpose regarding their child’s residence....This approach does not ignore the child’s experience, but rather gives greater weight to the parents’ subjective intentions relative to the child’s age. For example, parents’ intentions should be dispositive where, as here, the child is so young that he or she cannot possibly decide the issue of residency. The threshold test is whether both parents intended for the child to abandon the habitual residence left behind.” Absent the parents’ shared intent, “prior habitual residence should be deemed supplanted only where ‘the objective facts point unequivocally’ to this conclusion.” “Notably, when ‘the child’s initial move from an established habitual residence was clearly intended to be for a specific, limited duration[,] ... most courts will find no change in habitual residence. ” 

  The Court noted that it  reviews a district court’s shared intent determination as a factual finding that is reviewed for clear error.” The district court found that the parties’ “last shared intent ... regarding their children’s future was that they would leave their habitual residence, Venezuela, and would not return.” The district court recognized that the parties’ shared intent eventually diverged but that after meeting with Cifuentes in the United States, the last shared intent was for Osuna and the children to seek political asylum in the United States and for Dr. Delgado to return to Venezuela to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. If Dr. Delgado was successful in finding employment outside of Venezuela, Osuna and the children would cancel their asylum applications and reunite with Dr. Delgado.

      The Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not clearly err in its shared intent determination. The record demonstrated that Osuna and Dr. Delgado’s last shared intent was to abandon Venezuela permanently as the children’s habitual residence. There was a meeting of their minds to abandon Venezuela as the children’s habitual residence. Once Osuna and Dr. Delgado formed this shared intent and the children subsequently left Venezuela with their most important documents in tow, Venezuela was abandoned as the children’s habitual residence. It held that Dr. Delgado’s argument—that the shared intent to abandon a child’s habitual residence requires “making a joint decision to raise the child in the new country” and that the new country must be agreed upon by the parents—was not the law in the fifth circuit. Berezowsky, 765 F.3d at 471. In affirming it found that the district court applied the correct legal standard in determining the children’s habitual residence, and its shared intent determination was not clearly erroneous.