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11th Circuit Rules in Favor of Scottish Mom in International Custody Dispute

Marietta lawyer who won Supreme Court ruling directing 11th Circuit to hear father's case loses on merits

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Michael Manely
Michael Manely

A Marietta lawyer who won a 9-0 jurisdictional victory at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a client in an international custody dispute has lost the battle on the merits before a federal appeals panel.

In February, the Supreme Court said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit should hear the appeal of Michael Manely's client, an American serviceman who is fighting with his Scottish ex-wife over custody of their child, now 6 years old. On Wednesday, an Eleventh Circuit panel affirmed a district court ruling that allowed the child's mother to take the child to Scotland.

Wednesday's opinion spent about as much space emphasizing the need for quick resolution of international custody issues as it did tackling the merits of the fight between Jeff and Lynne Chafin. Manely, Jeff Chafin's attorney, noted the Supreme Court had urged as much in sending the case back to the Eleventh Circuit, something he said he took as "a very dire sign."

According to the certiorari petition Manely filed with the Supreme Court in the case, Jeff Chafin, a U.S. Army sergeant, married Lynne Chafin, a Scottish national, in early 2006 when he was stationed in Germany. Their daughter was born in Germany the following year.

Jeff Chafin was then deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months, and his wife returned to Scotland with their daughter, according to his petition. In early 2009, Jeff was transferred to a base in Alabama, and Lynne and the child visited Jeff there in 2009, and again in 2010.

She testified she wanted to see if her marriage could be salvaged, for the sake of her child, and Jeff testified that many boxes of her belongings followed her. The relationship remained rocky, however. In May 2010, Jeff filed for divorce. As noted by the district court order, Lynne was arrested for domestic violence in December 2010. Federal immigration officials determined Lynne had overstayed her visa, according to the cert petition, deporting her in February 2011.

On May 2, 2011, Lynne filed a legal action in a federal district court in Alabama demanding her child be returned to Scotland. Her action was brought under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. The Hague Convention, to which the United States and the United Kingdom are parties, provides that when a child who was habitually residing in one signatory state is wrongfully removed to or retained in another signatory state, the latter state "shall order return of the child forthwith."

After an October 2011 hearing in Huntsville, Ala., U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson ruled from the bench that Scotland was the child's habitual residence and that Lynne could take the child back there. The judge wrote later that Lynne had brought her daughter to Alabama for what might be described as a trial period at most and she would have returned to Scotland with the child in May 2010 but for her husband initiating divorce proceedings and serving her with an emergency custody restraining order. The judge also found that Jeff had retained the child's United Kingdom passport, citing this as a reason Lynne had continued to live with him even after divorce proceedings were initiated.

Within 20 minutes of the judge issuing her oral ruling, Jeff filed a motion asking the judge to stay her order pending appeal. She promptly denied the motion, and Lynne and her daughter returned to Scotland that same day.

Jeff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which issued a brief order dismissing his case. The judges cited a 2001 Eleventh Circuit decision that said an appeal of a district court order directing the return of a child to another country under the Hague Convention was moot when the child returned home while the appeal was pending because in that scenario an American court would be powerless to grant any relief even if it found the underlying order to be incorrect.

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