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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ogawa v Kang, 2020 WL 119960 (Tenth Circuit, 2020) [Japan][Rights of Custody][Petition denied]

In Ogawa v Kang, 2020 WL 119960 (Tenth Circuit, 2020) Japanese national Takeshi Ogawa brought a Hague Convention action against his former wife, South Korean national Kyong Kang, alleging that she wrongfully removed their twin daughters from Japan to the United States in violation of his rights of custody and seeking an order requiring the twins to return to Japan. The district court denied Ogawa’s petition. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

In 2003, Ogawa and Kang married in Japan. In 2006, Kang gave birth to twin girls. Until 2012, the family lived together, primarily in Japan. But in March 2013, Ogawa and Kang divorced. Married couples in Japan may divorce by agreement without judicial involvement. And when they do, the divorce agreement may provide the terms of any child-custody arrangements. Ogawa and Kang’s divorce agreement provided such terms. Ogawa filed an English translation of the Divorce Agreement with the district court. Under the heading “the person who has parental authority,” the Divorce Agreement states that Kang “shall obtain parental authority over” the twins, Ogawa “shall obtain custody of” the twins, and Ogawa “shall give due consideration to the welfare of [the twins] when exercising custody.” Under the same heading, the Divorce Agreement also provides that Ogawa “shall hand over [the twins] to [Kang] on the last day of March 2017[;] however, [Ogawa] shall continue to maintain the right of custody of [the twins].” Next, under the heading “[c]hild [s]upport, etc.,” the Divorce Agreement states that “[r]egardless of which party is entitled to custody, [Ogawa] shall acknowledge that he is obliged to pay 30,000 yen/month for each child for a period beginning in April 2017 until the month when [the twins] reach 20 years of age as child support to cover actual childcare expenses.” Finally, under the heading “[r]ight of visitation or other contacts,” the Divorce Agreement states that “either party can visit [the twins] once a year.”

After the divorce, the twins lived in Japan with Ogawa. But in October 2017, the twins traveled to South Korea to visit Kang’s family. While the twins were there, Kang took them to the United States without Ogawa’s permission. In April 2018, Ogawa filed his Hague Convention petition in the district court. The district court denied the petition, concluding, inter alia, that Ogawa failed to make a prima facie showing that Kang breached his rights of custody by bringing the twins to the United States.

The Tenth Circuit pointed out that to make a prima facie showing of wrongful removal and thereby obtain access to the return remedy, a petitioner must establish that “(1) the child was habitually resident in a given state at the time of the removal or retention; (2) the removal or retention was in breach of petitioner’s custody rights under the laws of that state; and (3) petitioner was exercising those rights at the time of removal or retention.” Shealy, 295 F.3d at 1122. Here, only the second element was at issue. To establish the second element, a petitioner must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she possesses rights of custody as that term is defined in the Convention. See § 9003(e)(1)(A); Abbott, 560 U.S. at 5 (explaining that “[t]he question is whether a parent has” any rights of custody “by reason of” parent’s rights in child’s country of habitual residence).

The district court found that Ogawa failed to demonstrate that the twins’ removal breached his rights of custody. In doing so, the district court examined the Divorce Agreement and concluded that after March 31, 2017, Kang had “full parental authority under Japanese law with the right to all decision-making authority for the children” and Ogawa had the right to “exercise[e] some physical custody[ ] at undetermined future dates.” Thus, it concluded, Kang’s decision to remove the children did not violate Ogawa’s rights of custody.

Ogawa and Kang agreed that the twins were habitually resident in Japan at the time of their removal to the United States. Thus, to determine if Ogawa’s rights were rights of custody, it  looked to Japanese law “to determine the content of [his] right[s].” Abbott, 560 U.S. at 10. And because the parties agreed that the Divorce Agreement governed their custody arrangement, it determines Ogawa’s rights under the Divorce Agreement as interpreted under Japanese law.
The terms of the Divorce Agreement provide that Kang “shall obtain parental authority over” the twins and Ogawa “shall obtain custody of” the twins. That same section also instructs Ogawa to “hand over” the twins to Kang no later than March 31, 2017, but notes that he “shall continue to maintain the right of custody” after that date. Another section requires Ogawa to begin paying child support to Kang in April 2017, after he “hand[s] over” the twins to Kang. Finally, the Divorce Agreement allows either parent to visit the twins once a year, and it obligates Ogawa to purchase the plane tickets for those visits. Ogawa argued—by relying on American legal principles of contract interpretation—that according to the “plain meaning” of the word “custody” in the Divorce Agreement, he “had custody rights under Japanese law.”. But it was the Convention’s definition of rights of custody and the content of Japanese law that guided the court, not “our somewhat different American concepts of custody.” Furnes v. Reeves, 362 F.3d 702, 711 (11th Cir. 2004), abrogated on other grounds by Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 572 U.S. 1 (2014); see also Abbott, 560 U.S. at 12 (explaining that Convention “forecloses courts from relying on definitions of custody confined by local law usage, definitions that may undermine recognition of custodial arrangements in other countries or in different legal traditions”). And Ogawa did not tell the court what “content” the word “custody” in the Divorce Agreement has under Japanese law or how that might fit within the Convention’s definition.  In contrast to Ogawa’s undefined “custody” right, the Divorce Agreement specifically grants Kang “parental authority.” And Japanese law delineates which rights are included in “parental authority”: for example, under Japanese law, a parent with “parental authority” over a child has authority to determine that child’s “[r]esidence.” Thus, “parental authority” under Japanese law falls squarely within part of the Hague Convention’s definition of rights of custody—a definition that specifically includes, “in particular, the right to determine the child’s place of residence.”. And the Divorce Agreement grants parental authority only to Kang; it nowhere states that Ogawa also has parental authority.

Relying on Abbott Ogawa argued “that even minimal rights ... are nevertheless ‘rights of custody’ under the Convention.” There, the Supreme Court held that a father had rights of custody under the Convention even though the mother had sole custody and the father had visitation rights. See Abbott, 560 U.S. at 5–6. But critically, the father also had a ne exeat right—which, under the relevant country’s domestic law, gave the father “the authority to consent before the other parent may take the child to another country.” Thus, the Supreme Court concluded in part that because the ne exeat right gave the father “the joint ‘right to determine the child’s place of residence,’ ” it met the definition of rights of custody under the Convention. But here, the Divorce Agreement did not grant Ogawa a ne exeat right. That is, the Divorce Agreement does not provide that Ogawa has any authority to prevent Kang from taking the twins to a different country. 

The Convention also provides that rights of custody include “rights relating to the care of the person of the child.” To determine whether Ogawa had such rights, the Divorce Agreement, specifically provided only Kang with parental authority. And parental authority, under Japanese law, includes not only the authority to determine a child’s place of residence, but also a broad collection of other rights-including, among others, the rights to “care for and educate the child,”, to discipline the child, to handle the child’s money, and to take legal actions on behalf of the child. 

The Court pointed out that simply because Ogawa had some rights to the twins did not automatically mean that the content of those rights amounts to rights of custody under the Convention. For instance, the Convention itself recognizes that not all of a parent’s rights qualify as rights of custody: it also recognizes “rights of access.” Hague Convention, art. 5 (“ ‘[R]ights of access’ shall include the right to take a child for a limited period of time to a place other than the child’s habitual residence.”). A parent with only rights of access cannot invoke the return remedy, see Abbott, 560 U.S. at 9. Thus, even if the Divorce Agreement gave Ogawa some rights, Ogawa had to demonstrate those rights are rights of custody as defined by the Convention. This he failed to do.

In sum, Ogawa did not carry his burden to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he had rights of custody as the Convention defines them. See § 9003(e)(1)(A); Abbott, 560 U.S. at 5. Instead of explaining what his rights were under the Divorce Agreement, Ogawa insisted simply that because he had some rights, no matter what those rights actually are, their “nature and extent” is “irrelevant.”

The Court also rejected Ogawa’s argument that he must have some rights of custody because the Japanese Central Authority forwarded his application for Hague Convention assistance to the U.S. Central Authority. Ogawa’s argument stemmed not from the terms of the Convention itself, but from provisions of Japanese law that implemented the Convention. Ogawa argued that Japanese law requires the Japanese Central Authority to dismiss applications under the Convention if “[i]t is obvious that the applicant does not have the rights of custody.” Thus, Ogawa reasoned, when the Japanese Central Authority did not dismiss his application, it acknowledged that he had some rights of custody. However, the Implementation Act does not state that by passing on the application, the Japanese Central Authority has determined as a matter of law that the applicant does have rights of custody. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Japanese law governs whether Convention rights of custody exist, not a foreign administrative body’s preliminary assessment of that law. See Abbott, 560 U.S. at 10, 12. It, therefore, rejected Ogawa’s argument that he has rights of custody under the Convention simply because the Japanese Central Authority transmitted his application to the United States.

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