Standardizing the Standard: Determination of “Habitual Residence” Under the Hague Convention

BACKGROUND

In 1980, the United States and the member states of the Hague Conference on Private International Law unanimously adopted the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. In 1988, Congress passed the Hague Convention’s enabling statute, the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. 22 U.S.C. §§ 9001–9011. In doing so, Congress reiterated the Convention’s purpose “to help resolve the problem of international abduction and retention of children” and to “deter such wrongful removals and retentions.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(a)(4). Accordingly, Congress empowered “courts in the United States to determine only rights under the Convention and not the merits of any underlying child custody claim.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(b)(4). As a result, the determination of a child’s “habitual residence” is the fundamental question in any case under the Hague Convention. The answer controls whether the Convention applies, which nation’s laws determine custodial or access rights, and whether a child must be sent across international borders to another country for adjudication of those rights.

THE ISSUE

Whether a district court’s determination of “habitual residence” under the Hague Convention should be reviewed:

  1. De novo, as seven circuits have held;
  2. Under clear-error review, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th and 6th Circuits have held; or
  3. Under a deferential version of de novo review, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit has held.

THE SPLIT

Among the ten circuits that have addressed the issue, three different standards have emerged for reviewing a district court’s habitual-residence determination.

Seven circuits apply de novo review to a district court’s determination of habitual residence, thus reviewing the district court’s underlying findings of historical fact for clear error. The Second Circuit explained that the habitual residence determination is heavily fact-dependent, but the question of whether the pertinent facts satisfy the legal standard is a question of law to be reviewed de novo. Guzzo v. Cristofano (2013). Similarly, the Third Circuit held that the “determination of habitual residence is not purely factual, but requires the application of a legal standard, which defines the concept of habitual residence, to historical and narrative facts.” Feder v. Evans-Feder (1995). Keeping in line with this approach, the Third Circuit applies “a mixed standard of review, accepting the district court’s historical or narrative facts unless they are clearly erroneous, but exercising plenary review of the court’s choice of and interpretation of legal precepts and its application of those precepts to the facts.” The Fifth Circuit agrees, explaining that such a determination presents a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review. Larbie v. Larbie (2012). The Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits also apply the same approach — reviewing the underlying historical facts for clear error, but reviewing the ultimate determination of habitual residence de novo. Koch v. Koch (7th Cir. 2006); Silverman v. Silverman (8th Cir. 2003); Mozes v. Mozes (9th Cir. 2001); Ruiz v. Tenorio (11thCir. 2004).

In contrast, the Fourth Circuit found that the crux of the habitual residence determination is whether the district court’s finding is clearly erroneous. Maxwell v. Maxwell (2009). Almost a decade later, the Sixth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit in applying that deferential standard. The Sixth Circuit held in Taglieri v. Monasky (2018) that it would “treat the habitual residence of a child as a question of fact.” Emphasizing the comparative advantages of trial and appellate courts and the highly deferential nature of clear-error review, the court uniquely articulated that it would affirm the district court’s habitual-residence determination “unless the fact findings ‘strike us as wrong with the force of a five week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.’” The court then deferred not only to the district court’s findings of historical fact but also to its determination that those facts were legally sufficient to establish a child’s habitual residence.

The First Circuit adopted a hybrid approach. Although it applies clear-error review to historical facts underlying the habitual-residence determination and de novo review to the district court’s resolution of that question, the First Circuit gives some deference to the district court’s determination. According to the First Circuit, it is fairly difficult in Hague Convention litigation “to attach an abstract label to a complex of discrete facts, some of which push each way.” Nicolson v. Pappalardo (2010). With this approach, the court will reverse a “district court’s raw fact findings . . . only for clear error,” giving some form of deference to the district court’s application of the standard in determining habitual residence.

LOOKING FORWARD

When Congress adopted legislation implementing the Convention, it emphasized “the need for uniform international interpretation of the Convention.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(b)(3)(B). Ten circuits applying three approaches is not the uniformity Congress intended. Fortunately, the Supreme Court found a proper vehicle to address the lack of uniformity in Monasky v. Taglieri. Set for oral argument on December 11, 2019, the Supreme Court will shed light on which standard of review a Court of Appeals should apply to a district court’s determination of habitual residence under the Hague Convention. In deciding Monasky, the Sixth Circuit created an additional split that the Supreme Court will also examine later this year. That issue will be discussed in another Sunday Split.