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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Gil-Levya v Leslie, 780 Fed.Appx. 580 (10th Cir., 2019)[Canada] [Grave Risk of Harm] [Petition granted]

In Gil-Levya v Leslie, 780 Fed.Appx. 580 (10th Cir., 2019) the district court determining that Ms. Leslie failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that the children face a “grave risk” of harm if returned to Canada, granted the petition for return. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The case was submitted without oral argument. In a footnote the Court pointed out that it order and judgment was not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.

  Ms. Leslie, a U.S. citizen, and Mr. Gil-Leyva, a Canadian citizen, met in Colorado in late 2007 and began cohabiting there in March 2008. Ms. Leslie and Mr. Gil-Leyva never formally married. About September 2009, they relocated to Alberta, Canada, where their children, H.M.G. and H.F.G., were born. Ms. Leslie testified that she lived in Canada like a “human trafficking victim.” She testified that she endured physical abuse, occasionally in front of the children, and that she witnessed Mr. Gil-Leyva abuse alcohol, marijuana, and prescription narcotics. Regarding the children, she testified that Mr. Gil-Leyva spanked them, got angry and threw objects in their vicinity, and neglected their basic needs when left alone with them. She further testified that Mr. Gil-Leyva allowed unsafe living conditions, with non-child-resistant bottles of prescription narcotics, power tools, deconstructed machine parts, solvents, and other hazardous items lying in the home, some of which the children played with. And, she testified about noxious fumes in the home from Mr. Gil-Leyva cooking solvents, pennies, and vehicle parts in the kitchen. Mr. Gil-Leyva disputes many of these allegations. 

In May 2016, Ms. Leslie convinced Mr. Gil-Leyva to give his consent for the children’s passports so they could visit her ailing mother for a week and a half. About a week after arriving in Colorado, however, Ms. Leslie informed Mr. Gil-Leyva that she intended to stay beyond the agreed-upon date. Then, in October 2016, Ms. Leslie told Mr. Gil-Leyva that she would not return to Canada with the children. She then initiated state-court proceedings seeking full custody of the children. On June 9, 2017, Mr. Gil-Leyva filed this pro se action in federal district court, seeking an order returning H.M.G. and H.F.G. to Canada under the Hague Convention and the ICARA.

In advance of a hearing scheduled for January 10, 2018, Mr. Gil-Leyva moved to appear via contemporaneous transmission under Rule 43(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The judge denied the motion on grounds that, as a pro se plaintiff, Mr. Gil-Leyva must litigate the case in person. Mr. Gil-Leyva took no further action until the day before the hearing, when he requested a four-to-six-week continuance so that he could make appropriate travel and legal preparations. He then telephoned into the hearing, despite the order denying his Rule 43(a) motion. The judge initially heard argument on whether to continue the hearing. She then denied a continuance and proceeded with the hearing as scheduled, overruling Ms. Leslie’s objection to the reliability of Mr. Gil-Leyva’s telephonic testimony. On April 17, 2018, the magistrate judge issued a written order granting Mr. Gil-Leyva’s request to return H.M.G. and H.F.G. to Canada. 

The Tenth Circuit rejected Ms. Leslie’s argument that  the magistrate judge abused her discretion in permitting Mr. Gil-Leyva to appear telephonically at the January 10, 2018, evidentiary hearing after denying his Rule 43(a) motion to testify in that fashion. The Hague Convention provides that “[t]he judicial ... authorities of Contracting States shall act expeditiously in proceedings for the return of children.” T.I.A.S. No. 11,670, Art. 11; see also Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165, 180, 133 S.Ct. 1017, 185 L.Ed.2d 1 (2013). This means “a district court has a substantial degree of discretion in determining the procedures necessary to resolve a petition filed pursuant to the Convention and ICARA.” West v. Dobrev, 735 F.3d 921, 929 (10th Cir. 2013). In fact, in this context, nothing requires a court even to hold an evidentiary hearing. See id. Certainly, then, a court that does hold a hearing has some latitude to deviate from ordinary rules of procedure that might delay a final resolution. This was especially true in this case, which had been ongoing since June 2017. The Hague Convention contemplates a judicial decision “within six weeks from the date of commencement of the proceedings.” T.I.A.S. No. 11,670, Art. 11. Not only had this case already been pending for six months when the magistrate judge held a hearing in January 2018, but Mr. Gil-Leyva had asked to postpone the hearing for a period equivalent to the initial timeline within which child-abduction cases should resolve. Concerned that the case was passing the point of expeditious resolution, the judge decided to proceed without Mr. Gil-Leyva being physically present. Given the impetus to quickly resolve the abduction claim, the judge had good cause to proceed in this manner. 
The Tenth Circuit found that Mr. Gil-Leyva, the petitioning parent, has made the required showing of a prima facie case. Mrs. Leslie conceded that she had retained H.M.G. and H.F.G. outside Canada since May 2016, that Canada wass the children’s country of habitual residence, that her actions breached Mr. Gil-Leyva’s custody rights, and that Mr. Gil-Leyva was exercising those rights at the time. 
Ms. Leslie pressed a single defense on appeal: that she demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence a “grave risk” that the children’s return to Canada would expose them to “physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the[m] ... in an intolerable situation.” The court observed that as the term implies, a “grave risk” means the “potential harm to the child must be severe, and the level of risk and danger ... very high.” West, 735 F.3d at 931 (quoting Souratgar v. Lee, 720 F.3d 96, 103 (2d Cir. 2013)); see also Van De Sande v. Van De Sande, 431 F.3d 567, 570 (7th Cir. 2005) (“The gravity of a risk involves not only the probability of harm, but also the magnitude of the harm if the probability materializes.”).

To satisfy her burden, Ms. Leslie testified that Mr. Gil-Leyva physically abused her and the children when they lived with him and that he negligently cared for the children and allowed unsafe living conditions in the home. The magistrate judge recited these allegations and found them insufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence a grave risk of harm to the children. 

Addressing physical abuse of Ms. Leslie, the magistrate judge recited Ms. Leslie’s testimony that Mr. Gil-Leyva “slapped” and “shoved” her several times and once “choked her with his hands,” causing her to break a blood vessel in her eye and bruise on her neck. Though this testimony is deeply concerning, and undeniably will figure in any Canadian custody proceedings, spousal abuse is relevant for Article 13(b) purposes only if it “seriously endangers” the child. See Khan v. Fatima, 680 F.3d 781, 787 (7th Cir. 2012). Evidence of a “clear and long history of spousal abuse” may suffice to show a propensity for child abuse, see Walsh v. Walsh, 221 F.3d 204, 220 (1st Cir. 2000), but isolated incidents of abuse generally demonstrate a risk of harm only to the spouse. At a minimum, the spouse must “draw a connection” showing that the risk such abuse poses to her “constitute[s] a grave risk to the children.” See Charalambous v. Charalambous, 627 F.3d 462, 468 (1st Cir. 2010). Ms. Leslie failed to do so in this case.

Addressing physical abuse of the children, the magistrate judge recited Ms. Leslie’s testimony that Mr. Gil-Leyva spanked H.F.G. “only once” and H.M.G. six times “with an open hand,” leaving “marks” on their “bare bottoms.” Certainly, a parent who is “in the habit of striking the children,” even for disciplinary purposes, might pose a grave risk of harm to them. See Ermini v. Vittori, 758 F.3d 153, 165 (2d Cir. 2014). But the described spankings, though again perhaps a subject for any Canadian custody proceedings, did not suffice to show a grave risk of harm. Cf. Simcox v. Simcox, 511 F.3d 594, 608–09 (6th Cir. 2007) (considering it a “close question” that even “repeated beatings, hair pulling, ear pulling, and belt-whipping” established a grave risk of harm). Although Ms. Leslie testified that Mr. Gil-Leyva would occasionally “get angry and throw things around,” she allowed that he “never hit the children with those items.” And she proffered no evidence that Mr. Gil-Leyva’s erratic behavior would constitute a credible threat to the children’s safety upon their return.

On appeal, Ms. Leslie argued that the children were at grave risk of psychological damage from Mr. Gil-Leyva’s violent behavior, even if that behavior posed no grave risk of physical harm to them. Though she may develop this theory in Canadian court, the record in this case provided no support for it. Ms. Leslie alleged that the children will suffer from “[w]itnessing a pattern of violence between” her and Mr. Gil-Leyva.  But she simultaneously claimed that she either cannot or will not return to Canada. Presumably, that “removes any risk of the children witnessing any future abusive acts” against her. See Charalambous, 627 F.3d at 469. Moreover, though repatriation may cause “unavoidable psychological harm” to children exposed to spousal abuse in the past, see Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 104, Ms. Leslie testified that the only abuse the children ever witnessed was Mr. Gil-Leyva occasionally slapping her on her “back side very hard,”. Though it is debatable that such contact would trigger grave psychological harm upon the children’s return to Canada, any such argument rested on speculation. See Souratgar, 720 F.3d at 104. Notably, neither party has requested a psychological evaluation of the children to assess the effects of any of Mr. Gil-Leyva’s past abuse. The same issue arose with Ms. Leslie’s argument that the children would suffer psychological harm from Mr. Gil-Leyva spanking them or throwing things at them. Ms. Leslie adduced no expert testimony or evidence that the children suffered emotionally in the past or that they would unavoidably suffer from spanking or thrown objects in the future.

The Magistrate judge recited Ms. Leslie’s testimony regarding Mr. Gil-Leyva’s negligence in caring for the children and allowing unsafe living conditions in the home. This included testimony that Mr. Gil-Leyva left non-child-resistant bottles of prescription medications “within reach of the children”; that his prescription  usage made his behavior “pretty manic”; that, on the “less than five” occasions Ms. Leslie left him alone with the children, he neglected to change their diapers; that once, he fell into a “narcotic induced sleep” during which he was “completely unaware” of the children’s needs; that he sometimes “put a child in the front seat” of his work van and once “used a tie-down strap in the back of the van for a child seat”; that he made soap and shoes and disassembled sewing machines, leaving their parts “all over the house” along with other dangerous items, including “[p]ower tools, solvents, screws, nails, glues, [and] choking hazards,” some of which the children occasionally played with; and that “it was not abnormal” for him to “leave power tools plugged in.” Ms. Leslie further testified—though the judge didn’t expressly address—that Mr. Gil-Leyva cooked solvents, pennies, and vehicle parts, producing fumes that made the home “noxious” and “uninhabitable.” Though the judge considered Ms. Leslie’s description of the home as being an “environment which may not be safe or healthy for children,” she found significant the absence of evidence that the children had suffered any harm when they lived with Mr. Gil-Leyva.  If the children suffered no harm from Mr. Gil-Leyva’s alleged negligence when they were younger and more vulnerable, it struggled to see how they faced a grave risk of harm now. While past harm is not required to establish a grave risk of future harm, it is probative of whether the children will suffer upon returning to the same circumstances. See Baran v. Beaty, 526 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2008). Ms. Leslie did not demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that these dangers present so grave and credible a threat that the children cannot safely return to Canada without her protection. 

Because Ms. Leslie failed to clearly and convincingly establish an Article 13(b) defense to repatriation, H.F.G. and H.M.G. must be “promptly returned” to Canada. See 22 U.S.C. § 9001(a)(4). The magistrate judge entered an order accordingly but clarified in dicta that she was only ordering the children’s return to Canada, not to Mr. Gil-Leyva’s home. She added that, as Canadian law permits, Ms. Leslie may take certain actions to oppose the children’s return to Mr. Gil-Leyva’s home; for example, Ms. Leslie may accompany the children back to Canada and reside with them, separate from Mr. Gil-Leyva, while litigating their custody in the appropriate Canadian court. Ms. Leslie argued that these suggestions amounted to unworkable “undertakings” which fail to guarantee the children’s safety. The Tenth Circuit held that absent a predicate finding that the children face a grave risk of harm in Mr. Gil-Leyva’s home, the judge had no obligation to craft workable undertakings to “ameliorate the ... harm.” See Baran, 526 F.3d at 1352. Instead, the judge was required to order the children’s unconditional return to Canada, which she did.