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Argument preview: When mootness and international family law collide

At Monday’s oral argument in Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, the Court considered whether a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action is moot when the employer offers to provide the plaintiff with everything that she sought.  Tomorrow at 10 a.m., in Chafin v. Chafin, the Court will return to the topic of mootness again, albeit in a very different context:  international child abduction.

The United States is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.  Under the Convention, if a child is taken from one signatory country to another, a parent who seeks the child’s return can file a petition in the courts of the country where the child is located.  If that court determines that the child has been wrongfully removed or retained, in violation of a parent’s custody rights, the child must be promptly returned to her country of habitual residence so that the courts there can resolve any disputes relating to custody.  The Convention, however, does not address the question at issue before the Court this morning:  what happens if the child returns to her country of habitual residence while the case is on appeal?  Is the case moot?

The petitioner in this case, Jeffrey Chafin, is a U.S. citizen and a sergeant in the U.S. Army.  In 2006, he married respondent Lynne Chafin, a British citizen, and their daughter was born the following year in Germany.  With Sgt. Chafin’s permission, Mrs. Chafin and her daughter lived in Scotland for several years while he was deployed to Afghanistan.  The family was reunited in Alabama in 2010, but the couple’s marriage ended shortly thereafter.  Mrs. Chafin prepared to return to Scotland with her daughter; however, before she could do so, Sgt. Chafin filed a lawsuit in state court seeking a divorce and custody of his daughter.  In February 2011, Mrs. Chafin was removed from the United States to the United Kingdom because her visa had expired, but the child remained in the United States with Sgt. Chafin.

Mrs. Chafin then filed a petition seeking to have her daughter returned to Scotland under the Hague Convention, on the ground that the child was a habitual resident of the U.K. who had been wrongfully retained in this country.  The district court agreed and ordered that the child be returned to Scotland.  Sgt. Chafin asked the district court to stay that ruling, but the court declined to do so, and Mrs. Chafin immediately left the country with her daughter and returned to Scotland, where she eventually initiated her own custody proceedings.

Sgt. Chafin appealed the district court’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which dismissed the appeal and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss it as moot.  The district court not only did so, but it also ordered Sgt. Chafin to pay Mrs. Chafin nearly one hundred thousand dollars in fees, costs, and travel expenses.  Sgt. Chafin then filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted over the summer.

In his brief on the merits, Sgt. Chafin argues that a case becomes moot only when it is “literally impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief.”  His case, he contends, is not moot, because a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit on the merits in his favor could provide him with several different avenues to relief.  For example, if reversed on appeal, the district court could order the child’s return pending a final resolution of the case – an order that would change the parties’ legal rights even if the district court lacked the ability to enforce it.  A favorable decision from the court of appeals could also affect Sgt. Chafin’s state custody battle, Mrs. Chafin’s Scottish proceedings, or both.

Sgt. Chafin has the support of the federal government, which filed an amicus brief at the merits stage.  Like Sgt. Chafin, the government emphasizes that the Eleventh Circuit’s decision “could have a number of real-world consequences.”  This would include, the government notes, a decision in Mrs. Chafin’s favor, which – among other things – could affirm that she is entitled to have her fees and costs reimbursed.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Chafin’s brief on the merits takes a very different view of the issues.  She emphasizes that she and her daughter are in Scotland and subject only to Scottish law and Scottish courts.  Having ordered that the child be returned to Scotland, she contends, litigation under the Hague Convention has ended, and U.S. courts cannot provide any additional relief in the Hague proceedings in the U.S.  The mere prospect that a decision by a U.S. court could somehow influence the Scottish proceedings would not provide the kind of effectual relief needed to stave off mootness.

In the end, although the Hague Convention does not specifically address whether a case can continue after the child has left the country, this case may boil down to how the Court reconciles traditional mootness principles with the purposes of the Hague Convention.  On the one hand, allowing the case to proceed after the child has left the country creates the possibility of additional disruption to the child’s life if the appellate court later reverses the district court’s return order – precisely the kind of repeated dislocation that the Convention seeks to prevent.  On the other hand, a ruling in Mrs. Chafin’s favor might prompt courts to issue stays more or less automatically, requiring the child to remain in the United States until the appeals are ended – which would thwart the Convention’s strong preference for a speedy resolution of Hague disputes.

An amicus brief filed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests that these tensions could be reconciled in part if district courts were to grant the losing parent a brief stay to seek an expedited appeal, with a short additional stay as needed to resolve the appeal.  However, although that approach could have some intuitive appeal to the Court, it is less clear either how it would play into the mootness analysis in this case – in which there is no stay and the child has already left the country – or whether the Court could implement such a rule itself.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Argument preview: When mootness and international family law collide, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 4, 2012, 11:26 PM),