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Monday, July 16, 2018

Kovacic v Harris, 2018 WL 3388333 (D. Maryland, 2018)[Croatia] [Age and Maturity defense] [Petition denied]

In Kovacic v Harris, 2018 WL 3388333 (D. Maryland, 2018) the district court denied the application of Plaintiff Ivica Kovačić for the Return of his Child to Croatia, The Court concluded that while Mrs. Harris was wrongfully retaining N.K. in the United States under the Hague Convention, N.K. had reached an age and degree of maturity that the Court took into account her objections to returning to Croatia and did not order her return.

Plaintiff Ivica Kovačić and Defendant Danijela Harris were married on February 22, 2003 in Desna Martinska Ves, Croatia. On May 31, 2003, their daughter, “N.K.”, was born. She was currently fifteen-years-old. Two years after the couple separated, on February 9, 2009, the parties formally dissolved their marriage in the Municipal Court in Sisak. The Municipal Court Judgment entered that day ordered that N.K. “will live with the mother Danijela Kovačić in Sisak...[and] parental care remains shared.”  The Judgment further set a specified schedule for Mr. Kovačić’s visitation with N.K., including every other weekend while N.K. was in school, “the first half of all winter, spring and summer school holidays, other holidays alternately, and according to the agreement of parents.”  

In 2015, Mrs. Harris and N.K. decided to travel to the United States to visit Mrs. Harris’ family. Mrs. Harris testified that she had relatives who have been living in the United States for a long time. N.K. was twelve-years-old at the time and needed to obtain a tourist visa. In order to do so, Mr. Kovačić notarized a statement declaring that he gave Mrs. Harris permission to request a tourist visa for their daughter. He further stated that “I also agree that once her visa is issued, my daughter has my permission to spend her winter school vacation, 2015-2016, in the United States of America, in the company of Danijela Kovačić.” On January 7, 2016, Mrs. Harris told Mr. Kovačić that she and N.K. would not be returning to Croatia. Mrs. Harris and N.K. testified that they decided to stay so that N.K. could enroll in school and take English classes. Fourteen days later, on January 21, 2016, Mr. Kovačić filed a Request for Return in Croatia under Article 3 of the Hague Convention.
          During the bench trial, N.K., testified that she did not want to return to Croatia with her father. She lived with her mother and stepfather in Elkton, Maryland. She objected to returning to Croatia because most of her family and friends were here in the United States; the friends she had in Croatia have moved to a different city. She also objected to living with her father in Croatia, testifying that he had never been there for her when she needed him, and she was afraid of what he might do after the court proceedings. She did testify that although she was not open to having a relationship with her father right now, she may in the future “if things changed, and he shows that he cares about me and about my decisions.”

          N.K. impressed this Court as an extremely mature fifteen-year-old. She was able to testify in great depth about her relationship with her father. N.K. seemed more mature and measured in her testimony than did her father. She did not attempt to embellish her testimony with respect to any physical reactions of her father. However, she was quite clear in referencing that even in past years “he was never there for me when I needed him.”

          Prior to trial, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment on his affirmative Hague Convention claim. Plaintiff Kovačić established a prima facie case of wrongful retention. The Court also found Mr. Kovačić had joint custody rights over N.K.

          The Court observed, inter alia, that there is the “age and maturity” exception. This exception provides that a court is not required to order the return of a wrongfully removed or retained child if the court finds that “the child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views.” Hague Convention, Art. 13. The party objecting to the child’s return must prove that this exception applies by a preponderance of the evidence. 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(B). A court must exercise discretion when evaluating this exception “because of the potential for undue influence by the person who allegedly wrongfully retained the child.” Trudrung v. Trudrung, 686 F. Supp. 2d 570, 576 (M.D.N.C. Feb. 10, 2010) (quoting Hazbun Escaf v. Rodriquez, 200 F. Supp. 2d 603, 615 (E.D. Va. 2002)). The Hague Convention does not set an age at which a child is mature enough for the court to take into account his or her objection to being returned. Luis Ischiu v. Gomez Garcia, 274 F. Supp. 3d 339 (D. Md. 2017) Therefore, the inquiry is necessarily a factual determination to be made on a case-by-case basis. See Rodriguez v. Yanez, 817 F.3d 466, 474 (5th Cir. 2016)

          Based on the testimony presented and the Court’s observations of N.K., N.K. attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of her objections to returning to Croatia. N.K. was over fifteen-years-old, and less than a year away from the age at which the Hague Convention would no longer apply to her. This Court observed her testify. She displayed a maturity for her age and demonstrated an understanding of the significance of the proceedings. She also spoke articulately considering English was not her first language and presented herself as well-mannered and intelligent. Mrs. Harris testified that since being in the United States, N.K. has made honor roll every grading period. The Court concluded that she had reached an age and degree of maturity for this Court to take account of her views. See Trudrung v. Trudrung, 686 F. Supp. 2d 570 (M.D.N.C. 2010)

          The court next pointed out that the district court’s finding that a child has or has not objected is a fact-intensive determination that is based in part on the court’s personal observations of the child. Custodio v. Samillan, 842 F.3d 1084, 1089 (8th Cir. 2016). The Court began by evaluating whether N.K.’s objections to returning to Croatia appeared to be the product of Mrs. Harris’ undue influence. See de Silva, 481 F.3d at 1286 (explaining that a “child’s wishes” should not be considered if the court finds that the child’s desires are the “product of undue influence”). Mr. Kovačić testified that N.K. had been “brain washed” by Mrs. Harris. N.K. testified that Mrs. Harris never spoke poorly or otherwise criticized Mr. Kovačić’s role as her father. N.K. testified that she would be open to having a relationship with her father in the future “if things changed, and he showed that he cared about [her] and [her] decisions.” On the other hand, N.K. testified that her father openly spoke poorly about her mother and the United States. Mr. Kovačić acknowledged in September of 2017 that Mrs. Harris encouraged N.K.’s relationship with her father.

The reasons behind N.K.’s objection to returning to Croatia demonstrated that she was not objecting merely because she had been in the United States with her mother since December of 2015. N.K.’s reasons for not wanting to return were similar to those in Vasconcelos v. Batista, 512 F. App’x 403, 408 (5th Cir. 2013), where the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of the age and maturity exception when the child (1) expressed she did not want to visit her father when he was in the United States, (2) had particularized ties to the United States including that she had done well in school, was involved in extracurricular activities, and had been receiving treatment for epilepsy, and (3) had virtually no ties to Brazil and “barely any knowledge” of her father who had not communicated with her since she left Brazil.

          The Court found that N.K. was not objecting to returning to Croatia merely because of the length of time she had spent with her mother in the United States. She was objecting because she has had a difficult relationship with her father and had very few connections left in Croatia. The Court concluded that N.K. was of the “age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of [her] views” and she “objects to being returned.” Hague Convention, Art. 13. Therefore, under the Hague Convention, although Mrs. Harris was wrongfully retaining N.K. in the United States, this Court was not bound to order her return to Croatia.
         The Court acknowledged its discretion to order the return of N.K. despite finding that the age and maturity exception applies and declined to do so.