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Bliss v. Bliss

July 22, 1999

DANIEL I. BLISS, APPELLANT,
v.
ELENA T. BLISS, APPELLEE.



Before Farrell and Ruiz, Associate Judges, and Retchin, *fn1 Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Zinora Mitchell-Rankin, Trial Judge)

Argued November 24, 1999

Daniel Bliss appeals from a judgment enforcing a Russian custody order, awarding sole custody of the parties' son, Nikita, to the mother, Elena Bliss. Appellant argues that the trial court erred in its determination that he had been afforded procedural due process in the Russian court. In addition, appellant contests the trial court's subsequent order awarding attorney's fees to Ms. Bliss under D.C. Code § 16-4515 (d) (1997), asserting that he could not have violated the Russian custody order until the trial court had determined that the Russian order was valid. We affirm.

I.

Elena Trush Bliss, a citizen of Russia, married Daniel Bliss, a United States citizen, in February 1995. The couple resided in Moscow where Mr. Bliss worked. Elena Bliss gave birth to a son, Nikita, later in 1995 during a four-month stay with Mr. Bliss's mother in the District of Columbia. Shortly after the couple's return to Russia, they began to have marital difficulties. During one argument, Mr. Bliss allegedly struck his wife. Thereafter, however, things seemed to improve until, without warning, on October 5, 1996, Mr. Bliss brought Nikita back to the United States with him while his wife was out of the house.

Although Mr. Bliss had also taken Ms. Bliss' passport with him when he removed their son to the United States, Ms. Bliss managed to travel to the District of Columbia in short order and filed a custodial action in Superior Court. This suit was dismissed on November 7, 1996 after the court determined that the District lacked jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, D.C. Code §§ 16-4501 et seq. (1997). *fn2

The Russian custodial proceeding and order.

Upon her return to Russia, Ms. Bliss began custodial proceedings there. Mr. Bliss first received notice of her petition in late November 1996, when she telephoned him, followed by personal service on him at his residence on November 26, 1996. The summons instructed Mr. Bliss to return to Russia on December 5 for a court hearing. Mr. Bliss then began to look for Russian counsel and sent the Russian court a fax on December 2, 1996, requesting a delay in the case so that he could present his objections and documentation to the court.

On December 5, Mr. Bliss received a second summons from the court, notifying him that the hearing had been rescheduled for December 14. However, Mr. Bliss did not sign acknowledging receipt of the documents as requested because the summons was not legible. The next day, Mr. Bliss was served again with a better copy of the summons, but was not asked to sign anything. Mr. Bliss sent the court another fax on December 12, again asking for more time to organize his trip and prepare documents. On December 14, Mr. Bliss' Russian counsel represented to the court that they did not have proper papers and asked for additional time to prepare for the case. The case was again continued until December 30. The case was postponed on December 30 for the last time to January 20 because a representative from the government agency concerned with the rights of children was not present.

On or about December 14, Mr. Bliss began to call social organizations and child adoption agencies to arrange a home study. He also contacted the Russian court for a third time on December 16 to ask the court for an official invitation to participate in the hearing so that he could obtain a visa from the Russian consulate. Mr. Bliss believed that the official invitation was necessary because during the five years that he worked in Russia, each time he had returned he had needed to get an invitation from a Russian organization before he could be issued a visa. As a result of his experiences, Mr. Bliss did not believe that the court summons would be sufficient for him to obtain a visa. *fn3 However, when questioned, Mr. Bliss conceded that he did not attempt to go to the Russian consulate to confirm that he would indeed need an official invitation, even after his wife had informed him that she had spoken to a consulate official and had been assured that the court summons would be sufficient for him to get a visa. *fn4

Although Mr. Bliss never secured a visa, he continued to remain in telephone contact with his Russian counsel up until the January 20 hearing. Mr. Bliss testified that had he been able to come to Russia, he "would have worked with my lawyers, I would have helped them secure and choose witnesses, I would have helped with the cross examination" and would have testified on his own behalf. However, Mr. Bliss did not ...


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