In Colchester v Lazaro, --- F.4th ----, 2021 WL 4929601 (9th Cir., 2021) the child’s father sought the return of the child to Spain. The mother argued that returning the child to her father, who she alleged had abused both her and her baby, would present a grave risk of psychological or physical harm to the child, and a defense under Article 13(b) of the Convention applied. The district court granted the petition for the return. The Fifth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in denying Lazaro’s application for a meaningful psychological examination of S.L.C. which resulted in actual and substantial prejudice to Lazaro, since there was a reasonable probability that ordering the exam would have changed the result at trial. The court’s denial of that examination therefore constituted reversible error. It vacated the order and remanded the matter to the district court for appointment of a psychologist and a new trial
The Court pointed out that the Hague Convention’s central operating feature is the return remedy. Where a parent files a petition for return alleging that a child under the age of 16 was wrongfully removed or retained within the last year, “the country to which the child has been brought must ‘order the return of the child forthwith,’ unless certain exceptions apply.” Among those exceptions is the “grave risk” defense: Article 13(b) of the Convention provides that “the judicial ... authority ... is not bound to order the return of the child if the person ... which opposes its return establishes that ... there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or would otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.” Convention, art. 13(b), 19 I.L.M. at 1502. This “grave risk” defense reflects the proposition that “the remedy of return ... is inappropriate when the abductor is a primary caretaker who is seeking to protect herself and the children from the other parent’s violence.” A respondent parent can establish a grave risk of harm from abuse “where the petitioning parent had actually abused, threatened to abuse, or inspired fear in the children in question.” Ermini v. Vittori, 758 F.3d 153, 164 (2d Cir. 2014). Spousal violence may also “establish a grave risk of harm to the child, particularly when it occurs in the presence of the child.” The grave risk exception is narrowly drawn. ICARA requires that a respondent must establish the Article 13(b) grave risk defense by clear and convincing evidence. And even when the respondent establishes that a grave risk of harm exists, the court may still order the child’s return if it determines there are ameliorative measures that would “allow both the return of the child[ ] to [his or her] home country and [the child’s] protection from harm.”
S.L.C. was the now-six-year-old, U.S.-citizen daughter of Appellant Jewel Lazaro, who resided in or around Seattle, WA, and Appellee Seth Colchester, who resided in or around Barcelona, Spain. In January 2020, Colchester was given sole custody of S.L.C. by a Spanish court sitting in Barcelona. Lazaro, who lacked the resources to live in Spain fulltime, was visiting Colchester and S.L.C. in April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. According to Lazaro’s testimony at the bench trial below, during that visit Colchester often “screamed at and acted aggressively toward both her and S.L.C.” Lazaro testified about several specific instances of alleged abuse that occurred at the time, including: • Colchester grabbing S.L.C. by the arm and throwing her down the hallway, leading S.L.C. to cry and hide in her room with Lazaro;• Colchester screaming at S.L.C. to “get downstairs, before I kick you downstairs” and then kicking S.L.C. down the stairs; • Colchester screaming at S.L.C. on various occasions for things like not folding his laundry, and sticking his finger in her face and making her cry;
More generally, Lazaro also alleged that Colchester repeatedly screamed at five-year-old S.L.C. and compelled S.L.C. to do various chores, including his dishes and laundry. Following these incidents, Lazaro absconded with S.L.C. After fleeing Colchester’s home, she falsely told local Spanish police that she had legal custody of S.L.C. She also hired a Spanish forensic psychologist, Dr. Alicia Romero Fernandez, who conducted a preliminary examination of S.L.C. for approximately 90-minute via Skype and through a translator. After Lazaro was unable to find anywhere to stay in Spain because of the COVID-19 lockdown, she and S.L.C. fled to the United States using a passport for S.L.C. that Lazaro had previously claimed to have lost. Colchester then filed a Hague Convention application in Spanish court, filed a criminal complaint against Lazaro in Spain, and applied to the governments of Spain and the United States for S.L.C.’s return. The Spanish court eventually issued a warrant, based on an order declaring that Spain was S.L.C.’s habitual residence and that Lazaro’s removal of S.L.C. to the United States was wrongful under the Convention. Lazaro and S.L.C. eventually made it to Washington State.
Colchester filed the Hague Convention proceeding on July 20, 2020 in Snohomish County Superior Court, seeking S.L.C.’s return under the Convention and ICARA. On October 25, 2020, Lazaro’s counsel accepted service of the Hague Convention petition and removed this action to the Western District of Washington.
After Colchester belatedly requested expedited proceedings in mid-January, the district court held a status conference on January 27, 2021. Lazaro filed a pre-conference memorandum setting forth two limited discovery requests: a psychological examination of S.L.C. and limited document requests. At the conference, the court questioned why a psychological exam was required, since Dr. Romero had already examined S.L.C. in April 2020 by video. Lazaro’s counsel explained that the prior exam was a relatively short “initial screening” conducted through an interpreter and that the psychologist recommended a more extensive examination. Counsel explained that it would be difficult to continue working with the Spanish psychologist, not just because of the challenges posed by conducting an effective examination through a translator, but also because the nine-hour time difference would complicate efforts to complete the necessary exams and trial preparation on the expedited schedule Colchester had requested. Counsel argued that it was necessary to conduct an exam informed by the case law applicable in the district court, which Dr. Romero had not considered. Counsel explained that such psychological exams of children are routine in Convention cases and that Lazaro would develop reliable evidence that S.L.C. suffered psychological harm from Colchester’s alleged abuse of her and Lazaro, which would be “critical” to establishing the affirmative defense that S.L.C. faced a grave risk of psychological harm from living with Colchester. In support, Lazaro cited a recent Convention case in the Western District of Washington in which the judge declined to find that a grave risk of harm to the child existed, despite crediting the respondent mother’s allegations of severe domestic violence, because no psychological expert testified about the “potential for psychological harm to children in cases of spousal abuse.” Consequently, counsel argued that “we can’t rely solely on witness testimony, and the relatively cursory Spanish evaluation, to prove grave risk by clear and convincing evidence.” The Court then ruled, without explanation and even though there had been no discovery, that “we’re going to have no more discovery. I’m not going to order the evaluation to take place.” The court then set a four-day bench trial for February 22, 2021.
The bench trial, conducted over videoconference, started three weeks later. Lazaro attempted to present evidence of alleged domestic violence through fact witness testimony, medical records, and the testimony of Dr. Romero (the Spanish psychologist who had conducted a preliminary examination of S.L.C. over videoconference in April 2020). On the first morning of trial, the district court denied Lazaro’s offer for S.L.C. to testify in whatever manner the court deemed appropriate, such as in camera and ex parte. The court thus precluded the testimony of the person with the most personal knowledge of whether S.L.C. had been abused, namely, S.L.C. herself. At trial, Lazaro alleged other instances of Colchester abusing her and S.L.C. beyond those said to have occurred during her spring 2020 visit to Colchester’s Barcelona home (as previously referenced). These included: Throwing a bowl of soup at Lazaro’s head, leaving a bruise; Keeping Lazaro and S.L.C. “under [his] control financially ... ma[king] her beg him on a weekly basis just for money for food;” Kicking Lazaro in the stomach when she was three-months pregnant with S.L.C. and forcing her to sleep in the closet; Punching and screaming at Lazaro when she was seven-months pregnant, after she sat in the driver’s seat of his car, then throwing her to the ground, dragging her through the gravel, and leaving her on the side of the road for hours; Hitting Lazaro in the head with S.L.C.’s bag, in front of S.L.C.; Smashing Lazaro’s guitar, in front of S.L.C., after Colchester’s associate told him that Lazaro was out with a friend; Shoving Lazaro into walls, on numerous occasions, in front of S.L.C.; Slapping Lazaro and ripping S.L.C. away, when she was breastfeeding S.L.C. rather than paying attention to Colchester; Throwing S.L.C. out of a first-floor kitchen window, after screaming at her about breakfast dishes, then locking S.L.C. outside until dinnertime without giving her food. Some of these incidents were corroborated with contemporaneous evidence, including text and photo messages exchanged with Colchester, emails to domestic violence organizations, and an audio recording, as well as testimony from cross examination of Colchester’s mother.
Dr. Romero testified at trial as a psychological expert in forensic evaluation of children. Her opinions were based entirely on her spring 2020 evaluation of S.L.C. Dr. Romero testified that she concluded there was “the possibility that [S.L.C.] [wa]s being abused by her father” because she “verbalized that she was scared of her father and that she had suffered physical abuse at the hand of the father.” She further testified that she did “not detect[ ] any indication that [S.L.C.] had been manipulated,” and that she did not discern that Lazaro was affected by any “pathology.” Finally, she testified as to the developmental risks that are created when an abusive parent obtains sole custody of a child. On cross examination, Dr. Romero acknowledged that there were limitations to her opinion, including that she was not able to do an in-person evaluation and that she was unable to spend time alone with S.L.C.,and explained that they were due to the need to respond to the “emergency situation” presented by Lazaro’s flight from Colchester’s alleged abuse and the COVID-19 lockdown measures in place at the time of her examination.
The district court issued a five-page order the day after the trial concluded. The order begins by noting that it was undisputed that Lazaro’s removal of S.L.C. from Spain was unlawful under the Convention and that S.L.C.’s habitual residence (not challenged on appeal) was Spain and Lazaro had not presented clear and convincing evidence that returning S.L.C. to Colchester’s custody in Spain would subject her to a grave risk of physical or psychological harm. The Court ordered that S.L.C. be returned to Spain, provided that Colchester must facilitate “daily electronic communications” between S.L.C. and Lazaro, and that Lazaro be permitted supervised visits with S.L.C., limited to two days per month. The district court’s order did not discuss any of the testimony or evidence regarding Colchester’s alleged abuse. In lieu of setting forth its own findings of fact, the order stated that the court “adopts and incorporates paragraphs one through ten and thirteen of Mr. Colchester’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Colchester’s ¶ 10 did not address any of the evidence Lazaro presented during the trial. Instead, ¶ 10 stated that “[m]any of the allegations of domestic violence and ‘drug trafficking’ that Ms. Lazaro has raised to attempt to use this ‘grave risk’ exception ... were raised and rejected” in prior U.S. and Spanish courts. The only three paragraphs drafted by the court itself did not address the substance of Lazaro’s grave risk defense.
Lazaro’s allegations that Colchester had abused both S.L.C. and herself formed the core of her Article 13(b) defense that returning S.L.C. to live with Colchester in Spain would subject S.L.C. to a grave risk of physical or psychological harm. Lazaro therefore argued to the district court at the pre-trial conference that credible testimony from a psychological expert who had examined S.L.C. would be essential to her case, and she sought an order permitting the necessary examination. The district court nonetheless denied her application, apparently because Lazaro could put on Dr. Romero, a Spanish psychologist who had interviewed S.L.C. over videoconference and through an interpreter for 90-minutes, even though, as Lazaro argued, Dr. Romero’s brief interview was no substitute for an in-depth interview by a psychological expert. (The court also rejected Lazaro’s offer for the judge to hear from S.L.C. herself, either on the stand or in camera and ex parte.) But after the trial, the district court indicated that it viewed Dr. Romero’s testimony as not credible because her opinion was based on an inadequate examination, the very reason Lazaro had sought a new exam before trial. The court subsequently held that Lazaro had failed to present clear and convincing evidence to establish her Article 13(b) defense.
Lazaro argued on appeal that the district court’s refusal to permit an in-depth psychological examination rendered the bench trial unfair. The Ninth Circuit agreed. It noted that Psychological evidence is particularly important in cases like this one, where the respondent (usually the mother) alleges that she fled with her children because the petitioner (usually the father) had abused her and/or her children. In these cases, psychological evidence can be important both because it can help the court determine whether the alleged abuse occurred and because it can aid the court in assessing the effect any abuse had on the child’s psychological health. Courts hearing Convention petitions thus routinely grant requests to order psychological examinations of children and credit testimony of psychological experts. The Seventh Circuit held in Khan v. Fatima that it was reversible error for a district court to refuse a respondent mother’s request for a psychological evaluation of her child where there was credible evidence that the petitioning father had physically and psychologically abused her in the child’s presence. 680 F.3d at 787–88. “The failure to allow psychological evidence,” along with inadequate findings of fact, made “the evidentiary hearing ... inadequate.”.
The Court held that as a threshold matter, the district court did not provide a reasoned decision when it denied Lazaro’s application for a psychological examination of S.L.C. The district court’s brief remarks were just one-sentence questions during argument, and when the court announced its decision, it provided no reasons. It impliedly misstated the record, by saying that “[w]e’re going to have no more discovery” when no discovery at all had yet taken place in this action. The transcript reflects no discussion of whether the parties could conduct limited discovery before an expedited trial, whether Lazaro’s proposed expert could conduct a psychological examination in the time allotted, or whether Colchester was entitled to his delayed request for expedition. It held that the district court’s wholesale denial of discovery in general and of the psychological examination in particular was unreasonable. This alone would suffice for remand. Moreover, it would have been unfair for the district court to first refuse the exam because Dr. Romero had already examined S.L.C. but later conclude that Dr. Romero’s examination was too brief to be reliable and that her testimony should never have been admitted because her opinion was based on an inadequate examination. Together, these rulings rendered the bench trial fundamentally unfair. This error was further compounded by the district court’s peremptory refusal to permit S.L.C. to testify herself. In effect, the district court’s rulings made it practically impossible for Lazaro to make out her case. Finally, the district court’s abuse of discretion in denying Lazaro’s application for a meaningful psychological examination of S.L.C. resulted in actual and substantial prejudice to Lazaro, since there is a reasonable probability that ordering the exam would have changed the result at trial. The court’s denial of that examination therefore constituted reversible error.
The panel also found the district court erred by failing to make findings of fact adequate to support its order returning the child to Spain. The only findings of fact supporting the post-trial return order were those portions of the petitioner’s proposed findings of fact that the district court simply adopted by reference. But the petitioner’s proposed findings were entirely conclusory and failed to engage with any of the evidence or testimony adduced at trial. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52 demands more. Reversal was warranted because, “[a]s a consequence [of the omitted findings], there was no way of knowing whether the district court’s decision in favor of [Colchester] on [Lazaro’s Article 13(b) defense] was based on resolution of the determinative facts in [his] favor; or whether the court erroneously concluded that [the alleged abuse] could, under no circumstances have ... implications” for Lazaro’s grave risk claim. The district court failed to comply with Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a), because the order below did not resolve the factual disputes necessary to support its legal conclusions.