In Alvarado v Castanos, --- F.3d ----, 2020 WL 896487 (11th Cir., 2020) Karen Berenguela-Alvarado sought the return of her daughter—EICB—to Chile from Florida, where she was currently living with her father, Eric Castanos. Berenguela-Alvarado had permitted EICB to visit Castanos in the United States from December 2018 to March 2019. Castanos never returned her to Chile. Berenguela-Alvarado consequently initiated Hague Convention proceedings in federal district court to get her daughter back. The district court found that although Berenguela-Alvarado had made out a prima facie case that Castanos had wrongfully retained EICB, Berenguela-Alvarado had consented to that retention and therefore wasn’t entitled to EICB’s return. The Eleventh Circuit found that (1) as a matter of fact, the court erred by relying on non-existent testimony that Castanos never threatened Berenguela-Alvarado as a means of securing her consent to EICB staying in the United States; and (2) as a matter of law, the court erred by shifting the burden on the consent issue back to Berenguela-Alvarado, requiring her to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Castanos’s threat constituted “duress.” It therefore vacated and remanded the district court’s order for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
Berenguela-Alvarado, a Chilean citizen, and Castanos, a naturalized U.S. citizen, were the parents of EICB. EICB is a dual citizen of Chile and the United States, but since her birth she has consistently lived in Chile with her mother. Castanos has acknowledged EICB as his daughter since she was three months old, and he has reliably provided child support and had regular contact with her since then, making several visits a year to Chile. EICB visited Castanos in the United States for the first time in February 2018; she stayed with him for two months and then returned to Chile. Berenguela-Alvarado later gave EICB permission to travel to the United States a second time. Castanos bought EICB a round-trip airline ticket for the trip, with a departure date of December 30, 2018, and a return date of February 28, 2019. Berenguela-Alvarado gave permission for EICB to stay in the United States until the end of March in the event Castanos kept her longer than originally planned, as he had on her previous visit. In early February 2019, during EICB’s second visit to the United States, Castanos “proposed” to Berenguela-Alvarado that EICB stay with him in the United States permanently, as he felt he could provide a better life for her here. Berenguela-Alvarado resisted, telling Castanos that she didn’t want EICB to “think that [she] had abandoned her.” Berenguela-Alvarado testified that in response to her resistance, Castanos “started pressuring” her to let EICB stay with him. As a result, she asserted that she “tentatively agreed” to Castanos’s proposal, to ensure that she would see EICB in July 2019, at a minimum—the terms of Castanos’s deal being that EICB would stay with him in the United States, that the two would go to Chile in July to visit Berenguela-Alvarado, that Berenguela-Alvarado could visit EICB once a year in Miami, and that she wouldn’t have to pay any child support. Berenguela-Alvarado said that she “agreed only because she just wanted her daughter to come back in July,” and that when she began to “express  hesitation and s[eek] clarification [as] to what was going on,” Castanos—this is important— “threatened to hold [EICB] for good and told [Berenguela-Alvarado] she would never see her [daughter] again.”
To effectuate his plan, Castanos enlisted the help of his friend Doris Baquero, who worked at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Baquero sent Berenguela-Alvarado a letter to sign that purported to give consent for EICB to stay in the United States with Castanos. The consent letter, dated February 10, 2019, stated as follows: Effective May 5, 2019, I, Karen Edith Berenguela Alvarado, is giving consent to my daughter, [EICB], ... to reside with her father, Eric Castanos, in the United States. [EICB] will be residing in the United States for the purpose of improving her quality of life, education, physical health and nutrition. Eric Castanos will fully be responsible for [EICB’s] housing, nutrition, clothing, education, personal hygiene and physical health. [EICB] will visit her maternal family in Chile the months of summer break from school in the United States. Karen Edith Berenguela Alvarado is in full agreement with this letter and her signature confirms her knowledge and consent. Berenguela-Alvarado testified that she felt that she “was under pressure” and that she “said yes” to Castanos’s proposal “because otherwise he wouldn’t bring [EICB] back.” She further testified that Castanos “was going to request custody if [she] didn’t sign the document.” So, she says, although she signed the letter, she didn’t intend to consent to EICB staying in the United States permanently. As part of their plan, Castanos and Baquero asked Berenguela-Alvarado to renew EICB’s U.S. passport and have the consent letter notarized. Berenguela-Alvarado renewed EICB’s U.S. passport in February 2019, but she ultimately skipped two appointments that she had scheduled at the local U.S. embassy to get the letter notarized. Instead, she texted Baquero a picture of the signed letter—she never sent the hard copy—which Baquero then notarized outside of Berenguela-Alvarado’s presence.
Later in February, Berenguela-Alvarado sent Baquero the following e-mail: Doris, good afternoon, I appreciate everything, but I changed my mind. I have everything ready for [EICB] to return. Her uniform and school supplies, she starts classes on March 4th at Primary school. It is very important that she starts when it’s appropriate so she won’t fall behind. Thanks for everything. Despite Berenguela-Alvarado’s request that EICB be back in Chile before school started, Castanos kept her in the United States after her travel-authorization period ended. This litigation ensued.
In June 2019, she filed a petition under the Hague Convention in the Southern District of Florida. Berenguela-Alvarado alleged that Castanos had been unlawfully retaining EICB since her travel authorization expired in March 2019, and she insisted that she had never consented to EICB staying in the United States. The district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Castanos had wrongfully retained EICB. The vast majority of the evidence that Castanos presented bore on his first affirmative defense—namely, that EICB would face a grave risk of harm if returned to Chile—and he and other witnesses testified about EICB’s mental and physical health and asserted that she would enjoy a better quality of life in the United States than Chile. Importantly for our purposes, Castano didn’t present any evidence pertaining to Berenguela-Alvarado’s purported consent. Rather, the sole evidence about consent came from Berenguela-Alvarado—she testified that she signed the consent letter because Castanos “said he was not going to bring [EICB] back, and he was going to request custody if [she] didn’t sign the document.” She further testified that in signing the letter, she did not intend to consent to EICB remaining in the United States permanently.
Although the district court agreed with Berenguela-Alvarado that she had established a prima facie case of wrongful retention under the Hague Convention, it held that she was not entitled to EICB’s return because it found that she had consented to that retention. The court held that by “sign[ing] a [consent] document, t[aking] a picture of it, and sen[ding] that picture to Baquero,” Berenguela-Alvarado had demonstrated “her subjective intent to allow EICB to remain in the U.S.” Importantly, the court acknowledged that if Castanos had threatened Berenguela-Alvarado as she alleged, that “statement would amount to duress.” But—again, importantly—the Court held that “Castanos denied making this statement and there is no documentary support for Berenguela-Alvarado’s assertion.” The district court found that Berenguela-Alvarado’s evidence concerning her communications with Castanos demonstrated “a contentious relationship” but did “not rise to the level of ‘improper and coercive’” behavior so as to satisfy the standard for duress. The court further rejected Berenguela-Alvarado’s argument that the consent letter should be discounted due to its legal deficiencies—it held that although “many questions exist[ed] as to the legal efficacy of the Consent Letter,” those questions were irrelevant because a parent’s consent doesn’t have to be formal under the Hague Convention.
Berenguela-Alvarado appealed the district court’s order. The sole issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in ruling that Berenguela-Alvarado consented to Castanos’s retention of EICB. On appeal the parties agreed that Berenguela-Alvarado satisfied her prima facie burden regarding wrongful retention; the parties’ dispute focused exclusively on Castanos’s affirmative defense of consent. The sole affirmative defense at issue was consent, which the district court found to be “dispositive.” The consent defense requires the retaining/removing parent to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the petitioning parent “consented to ... the removal or retention.” Hague Convention, art. 13(a); 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2). The petitioning parent’s consent needn’t be formal, but “it is important to consider what the petitioner actually contemplated and agreed to in allowing the child to travel outside its home country.” Baxter v. Baxter, 423 F.3d 363, 371 (3d Cir. 2005). The focus of the court’s inquiry should be on the petitioning parent’s “subjective intent,” and should take into account “[t]he nature and scope of the petitioner’s consent, and any conditions or limitations” on that consent. The district court’s analysis of the consent defense centered almost exclusively on the consent letter that Berenguela-Alvarado signed. It was Berenguela-Alvarado who introduced the letter—in fact, Castanos objected to the letter’s admission, arguing that it was hearsay. With respect to the circumstances surrounding the letter’s signing, the district court made a clearly erroneous finding of fact regarding Castanos’s testimony. Although the district court acknowledged that if Castanos had threatened Berenguela-Alvarado as she claimed, it “would amount to duress”—and thus presumably vitiated her consent—it held, as a matter of fact, that “Castanos denie[d] making this statement.” That was incorrect. Castanos never actually denied threatening Berenguela-Alvarado. The district court therefore clearly erred in relying on non-existent testimony as a basis for holding that Castanos had shown that Berenguela-Alvarado had consented to EICB’s retention in the United States. He never testified that he didn’t make the threat. In mistakenly assuming that he had, the district court may well have relied on Castanos’s post-hearing brief, which asserted—falsely and without citation—that he “provided testimony that he never threatened or pressured [Berenguela-Alvarado] to sign the consent” letter. None of the testimony that Castanos did give could be interpreted as constituting a denial that he threatened Berenguela-Alvarado. So, in short, the district court clearly erred by relying on non-existent testimony. Castanos never denied threatening Berenguela-Alvarado, as he falsely claimed in his supplemental brief and as the district court found. Thus, it was left with [a] definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Seaman, 766 F.3d at 1261
In addition to this clear factual error, the district court also committed a significant legal error. Once a petitioning parent has established a prima facie case of wrongful retention/removal under the Hague Convention, the burden shifts to the retaining/removing parent to prove one or more affirmative defenses—without proof of one of those defenses, the child must be returned to the petitioning parent. Here, though, the district court improperly—but expressly—shifted the burden back to Berenguela-Alvarado on the consent issue, erroneously treating her allegation that she signed the consent letter as a result of Castanos’s threat as a formal allegation of “duress” that she had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence. The courts expressly found that “Berenguela-Alvarado ha[d] not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that her consent was the product of duress.” This was improper. When it came to the consent defense, Castanos—alone—had the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Berenguela-Alvarado had actually, subjectively intended to allow EICB to remain in the United States. See 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(B); Hague Convention, art. 13(a); Baxter, 423 F.3d at 371. Berenguela-Alvarado had no burden to prove anything related to Castanos’s consent defense. The district court therefore erred as a matter of law in shifting the burden of proof to Berenguela-Alvarado.
These factual and legal errors tainted the rest of the district court’s analysis too severely to salvage its order. It therefore vacated and remand the district court’s order for further proceedings in accordance with its opinion.