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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Kim v Ferdinand, 2018 WL 1635795 (E.D. Louisiana, 2018) [Thailand][Necessary Costs and Attorneys fees]

In Kim v Ferdinand, 2018 WL 1635795 (E.D. Louisiana, 2018) Kim petitioned the Court to return her two children to Thailand. The Court concluded that the children’s habitual residence was Thailand and ordered their prompt return. See Soonhee Kim v. Ferdinand, No. CV 17-16180, 2018 WL 721455 (E.D. La. Feb. 6, 2018). Plaintiff filed a motion for attorney’s fees and necessary expenses, requesting $89,310.08 that included court costs, legal fees, and travel costs between Thailand and the United States. Respondent opposed this motion, arguing that Petitioner’s attorney’s fees were excessive and such award is “clearly inappropriate” under 42 U.S.C. § 11607(b)(3).     
The district court observed that under the Hague Convention, an award of fees and costs serves two purposes: (1) “to restore the applicant to the financial position he or she would have been in had there been no removal or retention,” and (2) “to deter such removal or retention.” Hague Convention; Text and Legal Analysis, 51 Fed. Reg. 10494–01, 10511 (Mar. 26, 1986) A party seeking an award of attorney’s fees must submit adequate evidence detailing the hours worked and his or her rates. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). It is the Respondent’s burden to show that an award of attorney’s fees and costs would be “clearly inappropriate.” Saldivar, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 632.

       Petitioner requested that Respondent pays her $89,310.08 for expenses incurred from bringing this ICARA action. She expended $1,098.50 for court costs; $77,957.77 for legal fees and expenses; and $10,253.81 for travel. Respondent submitted an affidavit declaring negative net worth of $81,914.40. Chief among his liabilities were unsecured loans of $50,000.00 and debt from litigation fees and costs of $52,943.30.
The court used the lodestar method to determine an appropriate attorney’s fees award in Hague Convention cases. Hensley v. Eckhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 n.7 (1983). Under the lodestar method, the amount of a fees award is calculated by “multiplying the reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably expended.” McClain v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 519 F.3d 264, 282 (5th Cir. 2008). This is then tested based on an analysis of twelve factors known as the Johnson factors, which was first formulated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717 (5th Cir. 1974).

         In reviewing the Johnson factors the court noted that a reasonable hourly rate is defined as the prevailing market rate, in the relevant legal community, for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation. Norman v. Housing Authority of City of Montgomery, 836 F.2d 1292, 1299 (11th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). From the Court’s experience, Petitioner’s attorneys’ rates, ranging from $355.00 to $550.00, were reasonable. According to Petitioner, who was a resident of Thailand and foreign to the U.S. legal system, she hired counsel from Washington, D.C. because she could not locate a lawyer in New Orleans who specialized in Hague Convention cases. Indeed, based on the Court’s knowledge, Hague Convention cases were rarely filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana. The Court found that Petitioner rationally hired an out-of-state law firm for her high stakes case, and her attorney’s rates were reasonable given their specialized practice, skill, experience and reputation.

          Considering the lodestar method and Johnson factors, the Court concluded that Petitioner’s attorney’s fees of $75,963.50 were reasonable. Moreover, this figure was comparable to Respondent’s own litigation fees and costs, which he declared as $52,943.40.4  Adding Petitioner’s attorney’s fees of $75,963.50 to her court costs of $1,098.50 and travel costs of $10,253.81, the Court found that Petitioner should receive $89,310.08.

The Court noted it had discretion to reduce or eliminate Respondent’s obligation to pay an award for Petitioner’s attorney’s fees and costs if such award “would be clearly inappropriate.” Distler, 26 F. Supp. 2d at 729 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 11607(b)(3)). “A review of the cases applying ICARA’s “clearly inappropriate” caveat reveals that the analysis is highly fact specific and involves an equitable balancing of several factors including financial circumstances.” Among other factors, courts have considered “straitened financial circumstances,” see Rydder, 49 F.3d at 373–74, and a respondent’s responsibility to support his or her children, see Berendsen, 938 F. Supp. at 739, as reasons for reduction of an award for attorney’s fees and costs. The burden is on Respondent to show that an award of attorney’s fees and costs would be clearly inappropriate. See Saldivar, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 632.

The  court found that Respondent’s current financial situation was unclear and indications of financial hardship was partially self-inflicted. In August 2017, Respondent secured a teaching position that paid $35,014.30. Recently,  Respondent quit this job and returned to Thailand with his children. Although Respondent argued that he had no promise of future income, the record indicated that he wass highly educated and had excellent communication and teaching skills. Respondent was capable of attaining employment based on his recent position as a teacher and his university studies in Thailand. The record was not clear about Respondent’s financial income. The Court considered the fact that Respondent was the wrongdoer in this case: he inappropriately retained the children from their Mother without her consent; later, he launched an unfounded smear attack on Petitioner and accused her of child abuse. His actions amassed hefty litigation expenses on both parties.
     The Court concluded that Petitioner’s attorney’s fees and costs of $89,310.08 was reasonable. Nonetheless, considering the financial status of both parties and the facts in the case, the Court apportioned this amount between Petitioner and Respondent. It directed that Petitioner should bear two-thirds of her attorney’s fees and costs, for a total of $59,540.05 and  Respondent should bear one-third of Petitioner’s attorney’s fees and costs, for a grand total of $29,770.03.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wertz v Wertz, 2018 WL 1575830 (W.D. Virginia, 2018)[Canada] [Grave Risk of Harm] [undertakings] [Petition conditionally granted]

       In Wertz v Wertz, 2018 WL 1575830 (W.D. Virginia, 2018) Tammy Mae Wertz petitioned the court for return of the parties’ minor child to that country.The child, L.E.W., age 8, was removed from Canada on December 20, 2017, without Petitioner’s consent, by Respondent Lewis Edward Wertz, III, and  remained in Virginia since that time. The district court found that Petitioner  met her burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Respondent’s removal of L.E.W. to the United States was wrongful within the meaning of the Hague Convention. In defiance of a Canadian court order and Petitioner’s custody rights, Respondent wrongfully removed the child from Canada on December 20, 2017, where he had habitually resided his entire life. However, the court heard clear and convincing evidence that the child would be subject to a grave risk of harm were he to be returned to Canada without the implementation of certain safeguards, called undertakings, which are necessary to assure the child’s safety. Subject to the undertakings, the court  conditionally granted the  Verified Petition. 

On February 5, 2018, Petitioner filed a Verified Petition against Respondent. The court appointed a guardian ad litem for L.E.W., and directed him to conduct an independent investigation into the facts relevant to the Verified Petition and the defenses raised by the respondents. The court sua sponte appointed counsel for Respondent.The guardian ad litem conducted in-person interviews and upon completion of his investigation, filed a report and recommendation setting forth his findings  The report was provided to the parties and the court received it into evidence at the March 15 bench trial.
        Petitioner and Respondent were married in Canada on November 3, 2007. The parties had one child, L.E.W., born April 3, 2009, who was a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. The family lived together in Ontario while Respondent worked as an engineering professor. The parties separated in late 2009. Petitioner left the family home and moved to public housing, where she continued to reside, with J.W. and the infant L.E.W. Respondent remained in the family home. The parties eventually divorced but continued to maintain a sporadic sexual relationship long after their initial separation. Both parents developed a close bond with L.E.W. and sought custody of him. Over the span of the ensuing eight years, the Canadian court was asked to resolve custody issues. 

          Petitioner’s trial testimony gave the court a full view of Petitioner’s prolific use of illegal substances over the course of two decades. Petitioner admitted to using cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, and marijuana, as well as abusing a staggering list of prescription drugs—Dilaudid, Ritalin, Percocet, OxyContin, Ativan, Adderall, morphine, methadone, diazepam, suboxone, and ketamine—by various means. Petitioner testified she has used drugs while L.E.W. was at school, used cocaine, crystal meth and opiates while L.E.W. was asleep in her home, and smoked marijuana in L.E.W.’s presence. The court was not aware of any Hague Convention cases involving this level of substance abuse, and the enormity of Petitioner’s drug abuse, while the child was in the home, overshadowed this case. Petitioner testified that she completed a 35-day treatment program in 2014 but has relapsed several times over the past two years. As recently as 2017, she admitted to using both cocaine and crystal meth and had numerous positive drug screens. In her Verified Petition she attested she “has been completely free of illicit substances for approximately two years. Other aspects of Petitioner’s life closely associated with her pervasive drug abuse compound the risk to the child. Arguably the most troubling was Petitioner’s relationship with John, a man she knew had been charged with sexual abuse of a child and had a history of domestic abuse of women. Petitioner testified that although she was aware that John had been ordered to have no contact with his own child, she nevertheless began an abusive relationship with him in May 2017, to which her child was exposed. Testimony at trial established that Petitioner appeared at Respondent’s house drunk in the middle of the night complaining that John had abused her. Another time, Petitioner testified John threw a cup at her and cut her face. John was arrested, charged, and served 75 days in jail for this abuse. The court was not convinced that the threat posed by the child’s exposure to men such as John has passed. Indeed, although Petitioner claims to be done with him, John is no longer in prison and was seen by her on the street.

         Although Petitioner admitted that John was present in the home with L.E.W., she insisted she never left her son alone with him. The court’s concern that Petitioner’s drug-influenced lifestyle posed a risk to L.E.W. was confirmed by her on-and-off romantic relationship with another man, Shawn. Petitioner described Shawn as the “main friend” with whom she used drugs. She testified Shawn had given her crystal meth, heroin, and Dilaudid, and that she has given Shawn her prescription Percocet. Petitioner and Shawn used drugs together in her home while L.E.W. slept. At trial, Petitioner referenced by name a host of others she bought drugs from, sold drugs to, and/or used drugs with, neighbors, friends, and a prostitute she met through Shawn.

        In 2011, Petitioner overdosed on Ritalin and suffered a psychotic episode in which she hallucinated and wandered around the common area of her housing complex with a baseball bat, believing there were homeless people in the bushes and dead babies on the ground. Petitioner was hospitalized for two days following this episode, which her daughter J.W. witnessed. L.E.W., who was then just shy of 2, was asleep at the time.
Petitioner had not engaged in legitimate employment in more than a decade. She survived on social assistance and had resorted to illegal means of earning income, such as selling drugs and prostituting herself through an escort agency called Niagara Dolls. Petitioner testified she last worked as a prostitute in 2013. This testimony contradicted a statement she made to the court-appointed guardian ad litem that she had only ever exchanged sex for money with Respondent. Petitioner admitted on direct examination that she was not truthful about this fact in her interview with the guardian ad litem.

  Petitioner frequently asked Respondent for money, long after the parties divorced. At times, money was given in exchange for sexual favors. Petitioner testified that it was possible that she used that money to buy drugs. Other incidents of Petitioner’s addiction adversely impacted the child. School records from 2016–17 revealed L.E.W. was absent 21 and a half days and tardy 56 days while he was in Petitioner’s care. Petitioner admitted leaving L.E.W. alone, unsupervised, with men who lived in her housing complex,one of which is known to Petitioner only by first name. In 2016, she assaulted Respondent in front of L.E.W. While in the car on the way to her suboxone treatment, she punched Respondent and split his lip open.

          Petitioner claimed to have “changed drastically” since then. Drug screens from the past few months of 2018 had been clean, and she claimed to be resolute in her desire to live a drug-free life. Yet her self-described support system included a friend with whom Petitioner currently smoked marijuana and from whom she had illegally purchased suboxone. Also of concern was Petitioner’s testimony that she is confident in her ability to stay clean because the “main friend” she did drugs with,  Shawn, was currently incarcerated. All of this, along with her admitted false statements and long history of drug abuse, led the court to find Petitioner’s claim that she was capable of assuring the safety of the child utterly incredible.

The district court found that petitioner established a prima facie case for return and that Respondent had not established by a preponderance of the evidence that Petitioner acquiesced to the removal of L.E.W. to Virginia during the summer and fall of 2017. It noted that Respondent primarily defended his wrongful removal by arguing that L.E.W. would be subject to grave risk in Petitioner’s care in Canada.  

        The court observed that drug use, under certain circumstances, ... may qualify as grave-risk conduct.” Mlynarski v. Pawezka, 931 F. Supp. 2d 277, 284 (D. Mass. 2013), aff’d, No. 13-1361, 2013 WL 7899192 (1st Cir. May 8, 2013) (finding no grave risk where petitioner had “susceptibility to taking psychoactive substances” and occasionally smoked marijuana). Courts use a two-step approach to determine whether allegations of drug use qualify as a grave risk. “[T]he court must first determine whether the alleged ... drug use in fact occurred. Beyond that, the court must consider as part of the grave risk analysis how such conduct, if confirmed, would affect the child were he to be returned to his habitual residence.” There was no case law to help guide the court in assessing grave risk for the level of drug use presented here.

        The district court pointed out that  courts have found that past drug abuse, standing alone, is insufficient to constitute a grave risk. See Taylor v. Hunt, 2013 WL 620934, at *8 (report and  recommendation adopted, 2013 WL 617058 (E.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2013) (citing Sanchez v. Sanchez, 2012 WL 5373461, at 3 (W.D. Tex. 2012)) (“Evidence of past acts of domestic abuse or past drug activity in the place of habitual residence is not enough for the grave risk exception to apply.”) Likewise, courts have declined to find grave risk where the past drug abuse occurred outside the presence of the child, or where relationships that posed the risk of drug abuse have been abandoned. See Sanchez v. R.G.L., 761 F.3d 495, 500, 509 (5th Cir. 2014) (finding no gave risk where mother ended relationship with boyfriend who abused and trafficked drugs); In re Hague Application,  2007 WL 4593502, at *10-11 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 28, 2007) (rejecting grave risk defense where petitioner maintained drug-free home and terminated marijuana use, and where prior drug use was not in home or children’s presence). But the limiting factors present in those cases were  not present here, where the evidence established that Petitioner’s unrelenting addiction transcends every other aspect of her life, without regard to the consequences to her child. The petitioner had a staggering history of drug abuse. Petitioner testified to using cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, marijuana, Ritalin, morphine, OxyContin, and Percocet. She admitted using crystal meth and Dilaudid in her home while L.E.W. slept, and to selling drugs, Ritalin and marijuana, on the street. Drug screens from the past two years included positive results for a variety of illegal substances, including cocaine, morphine, OxyContin, benzodiazepine, methadone, amphetamine, ketamine, and methamphetamine. Despite alleging falsely in her Verified Petition that she has been free of illicit substances for the last two years, she has relapsed numerous times. Indeed, Petitioner testified to a relapse in July 2017 and had positive drug screens as recently as December 2017 and January 2018. Petitioner’s testimony suggests that she purchased drugs as recently as December 2017. Petitioner, to her credit, sought treatment for her drug abuse, and her drug screens for the past couple of months of 2018 suggested improvement. But Petitioner had multiple “restarts” due to missing treatments, and reported to her doctor in January 2018 that she had purchased unprescribed suboxone off the street. Given the admitted falsehoods in prior statements made in connection with this litigation, the court was unable to credit Petitioner’s testimony that her drug abuse days were over.

         Petitioner’s continuous pull to drugs further led her to engage in perilous personal conduct, including prostitution and exposing her child to men with dangerous criminal pasts. Although she claimed to have abandoned this lifestyle several years ago, Respondent’s witness Wayne Corby testified that Petitioner worked as an escort as recently as May or June 2017. Petitioner’s drug abuse caused her to expose L.E.W. to dangerous people. The court could not ignore the clear and convincing evidence that Petitioner’s drug abuse, and all of the consequences thereof, constituted a grave risk that L.E.W.’s unconditional return to her custody in Canada would expose him to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place him in an intolerable situation. 

          The district court found that the case was ripe for undertakings. Although the court found that L.E.W. faced a grave risk if returned, this risk could be mitigated pending the Canadian court’s opportunity to make a fulsome custody determination. Similar to the circumstances at issue in Sabogal v. Velarde, 106 F. Supp. 3d 689, 710 (D. Md. 2015), the court was made aware that there was a criminal investigation and possible charge against Respondent for leaving Canada with L.E.W. without Petitioner’s consent and against the court’s order. If working together with the Canadian authorities, the parties can arrange to (1) have the temporary and final custody orders entered on November 22, 2017 and December 21, 2017 vacated, so that the underlying September 26, 2012 joint custody order is reinstated, and (2) arrange to have the criminal charges against Respondent dismissed or the investigation closed, the legal landscape would return to the status quo at the time of the removal. Then Respondent could take the child back to Ontario for custody proceedings. 

         The court directed that it would order the return of L.E.W. to Canada, provided the parties provide proof within sixty (60) days that the following conditions, which would reinstate the status quo at the time of the wrongful removal, have been satisfied: 1. That this custody dispute be resubmitted to the Canadian courts, and a hearing scheduled. 2. That the parties agree to ask the Canadian court to vacate the November 22, 2017 and December 21, 2017 custody orders, and reinstate the September 26, 2012 order pending a further hearing. That the parties take all steps necessary to have dismissed or closed any pending criminal complaints, investigations, or charges in Canada against Respondent, relating to his removal of the child.  That, once L.E.W. is returned to Canada by Respondent, the parties agree that neither party shall remove him from the Niagara Region, Ontario, Canada without an express order of the Canadian court permitting L.E.W.’s removal.  That the parties agree that neither party shall take any drugs for which they do not have current prescriptions and that  the parties transmit forthwith the full record (sealed and unsealed) of this evidentiary hearing, including all pleadings, orders, reports, and transcripts, to the Canadian court presiding over the custody proceeding, FACS Niagara, and the Canadian Children’s Lawyer. The parties shall share the expense of ordering the transcripts. Upon proof that these conditions are satisfied, the court will issue a final order certifying that the conditions have been met, mandating compliance with the listed undertakings, and ordering the return of L.E.W. to Canada.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Frenken v. Hunter, 2018 WL 1536754 (N.D. California, 2018)[Netherlands][Habitual Residence][Federal & State Judicial Remedies] [Petition denied]

In Frenken v. Hunter, 2018 WL 1536754 (N.D. California, 2018) the Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the action. 
Plaintiff was the mother and Defendant was the uncle of Child. The Child was born in 2004, in Lihue, Kauai. The Child’s father, David John Hunter (“Father”), was deceased. Plaintiff was a citizen of the Netherlands, The Child was a citizen of both the United States and the Netherlands, and the Father was a resident of California. On April 10, 2006, Plaintiff filed for divorce from Father in the Superior Court of California, Nevada County. Pursuant to a stipulation and order by that court for custody and/or visitation of children, Plaintiff and the Father agreed Plaintiff could move to Texas with Child on or after June 1, 2006. On June 21, 2010, the Nevada County Superior Court entered an order awarding the parties joint custody of the Child, stating that the Child’s “habitual residence” was the United States. In 2012, Plaintiff took the Child to the Netherlands without the Father’s consent. Plaintiff did not respond to the Father’s requests for Plaintiff to return Child. In July 2013, the Father initiated legal proceedings in a district court in the Netherlands, asserting claims under the Hague Convention. On July 23, 2013, the Dutch district court ruled that the Child must be returned to the United States by no later than August 9, 2013. Plaintiff appealed. The Dutch appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision and ordered the return of Child “to the place of her habitual residence in the United States of America” no later than September 7, 2013. Dutch authorities located Plaintiff with the Child in the Netherlands on or about April 22, 2014. The Father, who was in the Netherlands at that time, returned with Child to the United States. After th eChild returned to the United States, the  Father obtained “sole and physical custody” over the Child pursuant to an order of the Marin County Superior Court. The Marin County Superior Court issued that order on November 4, 2014. On December 16, 2014, the Marin County Superior Court entered a subsequent order stating in pertinent part that: “The minor’s country of habitual residence is California [sic].” On August 1, 2016, the Marin County Superior Court issued another order stating that Father and Child resided in California, and that “[t]he United States is the country of habitual residence of the child.” Father died on April 30, 2017. 

On May 1, 2017, the Child filed a petition in Marin County Superior Court to appoint Defendant as her guardian. The Plaintiff opposed the petition. The Marin County Superior Court appointed Defendant as Child’s temporary guardian on May 4, 2017. The Child was domiciled in Marin County, California from April 22, 2014 to at least the time that Plaintiff filed her district court complaint on May 31, 2017. 
The district court found thst Plaintiff’s claims failed under the four-step framework set forth in Mozes. According to Plaintiff, Defendant wrongfully retained child on May 1, 2017. There was no dispute that Child was a habitual resident of California prior to that date. Plaintiff admitted in her complaint that Child had resided in California since April 22, 2014.  In her opposition, Plaintiff acknowledged that she and the Father “agreed” in 2014 that the Father would be Child’s primary caregiver “in the State of California.” Courts on four different occasions, in both the United States and the Netherlands,  found the Child to be a habitual resident of the United States. And the Marin County Superior Court found specifically that California was the  Child’s habitual residence. 

The district court observed that Plaintiff’s complaint not only failed to allege that Child’s habitual residence was the Netherlands, but also attached documents compelling a contrary conclusion. Under Mozes’s third step, the Court applied California law to determine whether Defendant’s retention of the Child breached Plaintiff’s rights. It found that it did not. Pursuant to the Marin County Superior Court’s order, the Father had sole custody of child as of November 4, 2014. Following the Father’s death on April 30, 2017, the Marin County Superior Court appointed Defendant as the Child’s temporary guardian. That appointment occurred on May 4, 2016. Plaintiff failed to identify any facts or authority that would disturb that appointment. Though Plaintiff asserted that custody of Child reverted to Plaintiff upon the Father’s death, she cited no applicable authority supporting her position. Plaintiff’s reliance on the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments was similarly unavailing; the Ninth Circuit has repeatedly stated that a district court “has authority to determine the merits of an abduction claim, but not the merits of the underlying custody claim.” See, e.g., Shalit v. Coppe, 182 F.3d 1124, 1128 (9th Cir. 1999). Pursuant to the Marin County Superior Court’s custody and guardianship orders, Plaintiff had not shown that her custody rights had been breached. The district court held that the Marin County Superior Court’s subsequent May 4, 2017 order, appointing Defendant as Child’s guardian, was sufficient to establish the lawfulness of Defendant’s retention. The court concluded that Defendant met his burden to show that there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to Defendant’s lawful retention of Child. The Court therefore granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.