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Abou-Haidar v. Sanin Vazquez

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 9, 2019



          Amit P. Mehta, United States District Court Judge.


         Petitioner Sami Abou-Haidar resides in Paris, France. His wife, Respondent Maria Eugenia Sanin Vasquez, lives in Washington, D.C. The couple's daughter, E.A.-H.S., age four, presently lives with her mother in Washington, D.C. Petitioner filed this action on June 10, 2019, seeking return of E.A.-H.S. to France, pursuant to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

         The court held a two-day evidentiary hearing on the Petition on August 1 and 2, 2019. The principal contested issues were: (1) whether Respondent had “wrongfully retained” E.A.-H.S., and (2) if she had, whether the United States or France was the child's “habitual residence” on the date of wrongful retention. On August 21, 2019, in an abbreviated order, the court ruled in favor of Petitioner. See Order, ECF No. 38. The court found that Respondent had wrongfully retained the couple's daughter as of May 7, 2019, when she served upon Petitioner a Complaint for Custody filed in the D.C. Superior Court. The court also concluded that, as of that date, E.A.-H.S.'s place of “habitual residence” was France, and not the United States. See Id. at 3-4. The court therefore ordered the child's return to France.[1]

         This Memorandum Opinion provides a more fulsome explanation of the court's reasons for granting the Petition.


         The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (“Convention”), T.I.A.S. No. 11670, S. Treaty Doc. No. 99-11, is a multilateral treaty designed to address “the problem of international child abductions during domestic disputes, ” Abbott v. Abbott, 560 U.S. 1, 8 (2010). The Convention seeks “to ensure that rights of custody and of access under the law of one Contracting State are effectively respected in the other Contracting States” and creates protocols “to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or retained in any Contracting State.” Id. at 8 (quoting Convention, art. 1 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). The United States ratified the Convention in 1988, see Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 572 U.S. 1, 6 (2014), and implemented it the same year through the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (“ICARA”), 42 U.S.C. § 11601 et seq.

         A federal court's inquiry under the Convention is limited. “The Convention and [ICARA] empower courts in the United States to determine only rights under the Convention and not the merits of any underlying child custody claims.” 42 U.S.C. § 11601(b)(4) (emphasis added). Likewise, the Convention provides that “[a] decision under this Convention concerning the return of the child shall not be taken to be a determination on the merits of any custody issue.” Convention art. 19. Thus, “[t]he basic purpose and function of the Hague Convention and ICARA are to ensure the home country should make the custody determination.” In re S.E.O., 873 F.Supp.2d 536, 541 n.4 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (quoting Navani v. Shahani, 496 F.3d 1121, 1129 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted), aff'd in part, vacated in part, remanded sub nom. Ozaltin v. Ozaltin, 708 F.3d 355 (2d Cir. 2013); see also Abbott, 560 U.S. at 9 (noting that the Convention does not “alter the pre-abduction allocation of custody rights but leaves custodial decisions to the courts of the country of habitual residence”).


         Having considered and weighed the testimony and evidence presented by the parties, the court makes the following findings of fact.

         Family History

         1. Petitioner and Respondent were married in Paris, France, in October 2013. Trial Tr. at 29.[2] Their daughter, E.A.-H.S., was born in 2014 in Paris, France. Id. at 30.

         2. Petitioner is a medical doctor who provides house-call services, through a French company called SOS Médecins. Id. at 28, 30. He is licensed to practice medicine only in France. Id. at 28. Respondent is a Ph.D-level economist. Pet'r Ex. 7. Since 2013, she has worked primarily as an associate professor at the Université d' Evry Va' d' Essonne, located just outside of Paris. See id.

         3. Since the birth of their daughter, the parties have lived primarily in Paris, with intermittent periods of stay in Barcelona, Spain. Pet'r Exs. 9 at 2, 10 at 3. Until June 30, 2018, the family resided in a rented apartment, located at 255 Rue Saint-Jacques, in Paris. Trial Tr. at 53; Pet'r Ex. 13. E.A.-H.S. attended preschool nearby. Trial Tr. at 116-17. The parties had an active social life in Paris, often entertaining friends at their home. Id. at 140-41.

         4. The parties own an apartment in Barcelona, Spain, in which they have stayed for extended periods of time, sometimes for several months out of the year, typically during the spring and summer months. Pet'r Exs. 9 at 2, 10 at 3.[3] For instance, from 2015 to 2017, Respondent worked as a visiting professor (or in a similar capacity) at universities in Barcelona. See Trial Tr. at 164-65. During these periods, Petitioner would travel back and forth to Paris for work. Id. at 165, 167-68. E.A.-H.S. would attend school when in Barcelona. Id. at 167.

         5. According to Petitioner, E.A.-H.S. had more school friends and was involved in more activities in Paris, than in Barcelona. See Id. at 116-17. The court credits this testimony as Respondent did not dispute it. See Id. at 167 (testifying that E.A.-H.S. had friends in Barcelona, but not disputing Petitioner's characterization of their daughter's relative friendships and activities as between Paris and Barcelona).

         Opportunity with the International Development Bank

         6. In January 2018, Respondent was offered the opportunity to serve as a consultant with the International Development Bank (“IDB”) in Washington, D.C. Id. at 34. Petitioner supported Respondent's pursuit of the opportunity. Id. at 42, 89. He agreed to structure his schedule in such a way that he would, for ten to twelve consecutive days, work in Paris and live in a small apartment in Paris that he had purchased before marriage. Id. at 42. For the remaining days of the month, he would live with his family in Washington, D.C. Id.

         7. The court finds that the parties agreed to move their family to Washington, D.C., for at least 18 months-the term of Respondent's contract with IDB-but left open the possibility of staying for a longer period. According to Respondent, the initial contract that IDB offered her was for an 18-month term, which could be renewed only after a six-month period of separation. Id. at 175. Petitioner and Respondent preferred that Respondent receive a contract that allowed for successive renewal without a six-month separation period. See Id. Such an arrangement afforded the family flexibility to stay for longer than 18 months in Washington, D.C., if desired. See Id. Eventually, IDB offered Respondent a contract that would allow for successive renewals, which she accepted. See Id. at 175. Respondent began an 18-month term with the IDB on July 1, 2018. Id. at 53.

         8. The court does not credit Petitioner's insistence that he agreed to keep his family in Washington, D.C., for no more than 18 months. See Id. at 46, 126-27. Petitioner did not dispute Respondent's testimony that she negotiated her contract to allow for the possibility of successive terms with IDB, so that the family potentially ...

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