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Castellanos Monzon v. De La Roca

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 7, 2018

HUGO ARISTOTELES CASTELLANOS MONZON, Appellant
v.
INGRID FABIOLA DE LA ROCA

          Argued March 6, 2018

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (Case No. 3:16-cv-00058) District Judge: Hon. Freda L. Wolfson

          John M. Boehler, Esq. [ARGUED] Rutgers Law Associates Counsel for Appellant

          Dorothy A. Hickok, Esq. Mark D. Taticchi, Esq., Drinker Biddle & Reath One Logan Square James C. Jones, Esq. Drinker Biddle & Reath Counsel for Appellee

          Before: McKEE, AMBRO, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          McKEE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Hugo Castellanos Monzón[1] appeals the District Court's denial of the Petition he filed pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the "Convention")[2] and the International Child Abduction Remedies Act ("ICARA"), [3] seeking the return of his minor child, H.C. Subject to certain exceptions, both the Convention[4] and ICARA[5] mandate the return of a child to the custodial parent when the other parent wrongfully removes or retains the child in violation of the requesting parent's custody rights. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm.[6]

         I.

         A. Factual Background

         Castellanos married Appellee De La Roca in 2004. Their son, H.C., was born in 2010. The couple separated shortly thereafter in November 2011, and formally divorced by mutual consent in January 2014.

         Castellanos and De La Roca have divergent narratives regarding their separation and divorce. De La Roca claims that violence was a factor. Although she did not raise that issue in the divorce proceedings, [7] she now claims that she feared for her safety during the relationship. Responding to Castellanos's Petition for H.C.'s return, she claimed that Castellanos verbally and physically threatened her by speeding and driving recklessly while she was pregnant and a passenger in his car. She also claimed that Castellanos attempted to visit H.C. more often than the couple had agreed to after their separation when she became H.C.'s primary guardian. According to De La Roca, this resulted in arguments between her and Castellanos. De La Roca claims that Castellanos showed up at her home late at night, approached her, threatened to kill himself, and demanded H.C. Castellanos categorically denies all of De La Roca's allegations of abuse.

         1. De La Roca's New Relationship and Ties to the U.S.

         In the summer of 2013, after her separation from Castellanos, but before they divorced, De La Roca began a long distance relationship with her childhood acquaintance, "Deleon," who resided in New Jersey. De La Roca testified that she obtained a visa for H.C. to travel to the United States with Castellanos's consent, though she did not immediately bring H.C. to the U.S. Instead, she took several trips to visit Deleon by herself. However, she eventually traveled to New Jersey and married him in March of 2014. She did not tell Castellanos about the marriage.

         Shortly after marrying Deleon, De La Roca told Castellanos that she intended to bring H.C. to the United States to live; Castellanos refused to consent. In or around March of 2014, De La Roca filed a domestic violence complaint against Castellanos in Guatemala and obtained a temporary restraining order. However, she failed to appear at the hearing to make the TRO permanent because she had already moved to New Jersey before the final hearing.

         In July of 2014, De La Roca took H.C. to the United States. She testified that she decided to ignore Castellanos's denial of consent because she "could not explain to [her] aggressor that [she] was leaving."[8] A month after taking H.C. to New Jersey, she sent Castellanos a text message informing him she was there with H.C. She did not disclose their exact address "[o]ut of fear that he would come [to New Jersey] to do the same thing as in Guatemala."[9]

         2. Castellanos's Efforts to Invoke the Convention

         On August 23, 2014, Castellanos filed an Application for Return of the Child under the Convention with the Central Authority in Guatemala. The Guatemalan Authority forwarded that application to the United States Department of State. About 16 months later, on January 5, 2016, having discovered that the Convention required him to file where H.C. lived, Castellanos filed the instant Petition for Return of the Child (the "Petition") in the District Court of New Jersey.

         B. Legal Background

         1. The Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction

         Article 1 of the Convention has two primary objectives: "(a) to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or retained in any Contracting State; and (b) to ensure that rights of custody and of access under the law of one Contracting State are effectively respected in the other Contracting States."[10] The Convention requires that the petitioner seeking return of the child bear the initial burden of showing that the child was habitually resident in a State signatory to the Convention and was wrongfully removed to a different State, as defined by Article 3.

         Where a court determines a child has been wrongfully removed, Article 12 of the Convention provides that the child is to be returned "forthwith," as long as the proceedings have been "commenced" in the "judicial or administrative authority of the Contracting State where the child is" less than one year before the date of wrongful removal.[11] But where the petitioner fails to commence the proceedings before the one-year deadline, s/he is no longer entitled to the child's automatic return. Instead, a rebuttable presumption arises whereby the child's return is subject to certain affirmative defenses, including demonstration that "the child is now settled in its new environment."[12]

         The Convention sets out a total of five defenses to a Contracting State's duty to return the child. The first is the one just mentioned: where the child is well settled in his or her new environment.[13] A second exception applies where the petitioner was not exercising custody rights at the time of the child's wrongful removal or retention, or acquiesced in the removal or retention.[14] A third exception applies where "there is a grave risk that [the child's] return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation."[15] There is a fourth exception if the child objects to being returned and has "attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of [the child's] views."[16] The fifth and final exception is where "[t]he return of the child . . . would not be permitted by the fundamental principles of the requested State relating to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms."[17]Significantly, the Convention establishes neither the degree of certainty nor the burden of proof that a respondent must establish to defeat the petition and retain custody of the child pursuant to these affirmative defenses.[18]

         2. The International Child Abduction Remedies Act ("ICARA")

         Congress enacted ICARA to implement the Convention.[19] Under ICARA, "the petitioner bears the initial burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the child was . . . wrongfully removed."[20] "Once the petitioner meets its initial burden, the respondent may oppose the child's return by proving one of [the] five affirmative defenses" as listed under ICARA provision 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(A) and (B).[21] Section 9003(e)(2) provides:

(e) Burdens of proof
(2) In the case of an action for the return of a child, a respondent who opposes the return of the child has the burden of establishing-
(A) by clear and convincing evidence that one of the exceptions set forth in article 13b or 20 of the Convention applies; and
(B) by a preponderance of the evidence that any other exception set forth in article 12 or 13 of the Convention applies.[22]

         Congress specifically required that these affirmative defenses be "narrowly construed to effectuate the purposes of the Convention."[23] Moreover, because of the very important policy objectives of the Convention and ICARA, courts retain the discretion to order the child's return. Thus, "even where a defense applies, the court has the discretion to order the child's return."[24]

         C. Procedural Background

         On January 5, 2016, Castellanos filed the Petition for the return of H.C. with the United States District Court of New Jersey. Thereafter, the District Court held two days of hearings, [25] which included the testimony of Castellanos, De La Roca, and two expert witnesses who testified on her behalf.[26]The first of those witnesses was Victoria Sanford, Ph.D., an expert on domestic violence against women and children in Guatemala. She testified about "the police structure and government of Guatemala City."[27] The second witness was Robert T. Latimer, M.D., a psychiatric expert who interviewed H.C. at the start of the court case.[28]

         After considering the evidence and the parties' post-hearing submissions, the District Court entered judgment in favor of De La Roca, thereby refusing to return H.C. to Castellanos. However, the Court expressly declined to address De La Roca's affirmative defense under Article 13b (H.C.'s return to Guatemala constitutes a "grave risk").[29] Instead, the Court concluded that De La Roca had successfully demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence, that H.C. was well settled in the United States pursuant to ICARA, [30] and therefore decided not to exercise its independent authority to order H.C.'s return to Guatemala.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Castellanos makes three arguments on appeal. He argues that the District Court erred in not finding that the notice he filed with the Guatemalan Central Authority and the U.S. Department of State constituted a "proceeding" for purposes of Article 12 of the Convention, thereby entitling him to have H.C. returned pending resolution of the custody dispute. Castellanos also claims the District Court erred in interpreting De La Roca's burden under ICARA.[31] Finally, he claims the District Court erred in finding that H.C. was "well settled" in the United States, and thereby denying H.C.'s return to Guatemala.

         A.

         Castellanos contends the District Court should have considered the application he initially filed with the Guatemalan Central Authority and the U.S. Department of State as a "proceeding" under ICARA. He insists that by filing that notice when he first learned of H.C.'s removal, he acted "diligently" and "in accordance with the established methods of international communication between [U.S. and Guatemalan] Central Authorities."[32] He argues that he was "unable to overcome the language barrier, the lack of access to affordable legal representation, and certainty as to H.C.'s residence."[33] He therefore asserts that the resulting delay should not be attributed to him, and the "petition date" should therefore be the first of either a judicial filing or an application to the Central Authority, for purposes of the Convention.[34]

         ICARA defines "commencement of proceedings" as used in Article 12 of the Convention as "the filing of a petition in accordance with [§ 9003(b)]."[35] Section 9003(b) provides, in turn, that "[a]ny person seeking to initiate judicial proceedings under the Convention for the return of a child . . . may do so by commencing a civil action by filing a petition for the relief sought in any court which has jurisdiction of such action and which is authorized to exercise its jurisdiction in the place where the child is located at the time the petition is filed."[36] Accordingly, we cannot conclude that mere notice of one's intent to have a child returned to the parent in a signatory state constitutes "commencement of proceedings" under Article 12.

         We realize that Castellanos tried to act diligently, and we are not unsympathetic to his efforts. Nevertheless, our inquiry into what constitutes a proper filing for these purposes is circumscribed by the language of ICARA and the Convention. We cannot ignore that language by extending it to include a document filed with either the Guatemalan Central Authority or the U.S. Department of State.[37] If a parent pursues the remedies available for the return of his/her child under ICARA, Congress has clearly required that the parent do so by "filing a petition . . . in [a] court . . . where the child is located."[38]

         As noted earlier, the timing of any such filing is crucial. When a child has been removed and "a period of less than one year has elapsed from the date of the wrongful removal or retention, the authority concerned shall order the return of the child forthwith."[39] Thus, at least one year must pass before a child can be considered sufficiently settled and no longer subject to automatic return to the other parent during the pendency of proceedings under the Convention and ICARA. "[I]f one year has elapsed since a child was wrongfully removed or retained when a petition is filed, a court must also determine whether the child is 'settled in its new environment.'"[40] Thus, "the 'now settled' exception only applies where the child has been in the destination state for more than one year from the date of the wrongful removal or retention."[41]

         The delay in filing the Petition for H.C.'s return did not eliminate Castellanos's remedies under the Convention, [42] nor did it ensure De La Roca's success in resisting the Petition for H.C.'s return. Here, the District Court correctly recognized its continuing independent authority to order H.C.'s return; however, it declined to exercise this authority. The Court stated, "I will not exercise my discretion to order the return of H.C. to Guatemala during the pendency of any future custody determinations."[43] Concomitantly, even if Castellanos had properly filed his petition in the New Jersey District Court within a year of H.C.'s removal, the District Court still could have exercised its discretion and denied H.C.'s return pursuant to the terms of the Convention.[44] Therefore, although the one-year filing requirement is important, the late filing did not ultimately determine H.C.'s custody.[45]

         B.

         When proceedings for a petition for the return of a child begin more than one year after the child's removal, the Convention requires that the court "shall order the return of the child," subject to specific affirmative defenses set forth in § 9003(e).[46] The petitioner has the initial burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the child was wrongfully removed, whereupon "the respondent may oppose the child's return" by establishing the "affirmative defenses" or "exceptions" as listed under ICARA provision 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e)(2)(A) and (B).[47]

         In Tsai-Yi Yang, we explained the "four questions that must be answered in a wrongful removal or retention case" are as follows:

[We] must determine (1) when the removal or retention took place; (2) the child's habitual residence immediately prior to such removal or retention; (3) whether the removal or retention breached the petitioner's custody rights under the law of the child's habitual residence; and (4) whether the petitioner was exercising his or her custody rights at the time of removal or retention.[48]

         De La Roca does not dispute the District Court's conclusion that Castellanos established each of these four conditions for H.C.'s return under the Convention.[49] Accordingly, De La Roca had to produce sufficient evidence to establish an affirmative defense to Castellanos's Petition pursuant to subsection (e)(2) of ICARA.

Recall that § 9003(e)(2) provides as follows:

(e) Burdens of proof
(2) In . . . an action for the return of a child, a respondent who opposes the return of the child has the burden of establishing--
(A) by clear and convincing evidence that one of the exceptions set forth in article 13b or 20 of the Convention applies; and
(B) by a preponderance of the evidence that any other exception set forth in article 12 or 13 of the Convention applies.[50]

         Castellanos insists that the use of the conjunctive "and" means that De La Roca must establish both prongs of § 9003(e)(2) by the specified burden of proof before his Petition for H.C. could be denied.[51] He asserts with some force that Congress could have simply used the word "or" if it had intended for respondents to successfully resist a petition for return of ...


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