Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez
Annotate this Case
572 US ___ (2014)
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
MANUEL JOSE LOZANO, PETITIONER v. DIANALUCIA MONTOYA ALVAREZ
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
[March 5, 2014]
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
When a parent abducts a child and flees to another country, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction generally requires that country to return the child immediately if the other parent requests return within one year. The question in this case is whether that 1-year period is subject to equitable tolling when the abducting parent conceals the child’s location from the other parent. We hold that equitable tolling is not available.
To address “the problem of international child abductions during domestic disputes,” Abbott v. Abbott, 560 U. S. 1, 8 (2010) , in 1980 the Hague Conference on Private International Law adopted the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Hague Convention or Convention), T. I. A. S. No. 11670, S. Treaty Doc. No. 99–11 (Treaty Doc.). The Convention states two primary objectives: “to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or retained in any Contracting State,” and “to ensure that rights of custody and of access under the law of one Contracting State are effectively respected in the other Contracting States.” Art. 1, id.,at 7.
To those ends, the Convention’s “central operating feature” is the return of the child. Abbott, 560 U. S., at 9. That remedy, in effect, lays venue for the ultimate custody determination in the child’s country of habitual residence rather than the country to which the child is abducted. See id., at 20 (“The Convention is based on the principle that the best interests of the child are well served when de-cisions regarding custody rights are made in the countryof habitual residence”).
The return remedy is not absolute. Article 13 excuses return where, for example, the left-behind parent was not “actually exercising” custody rights when the abducting parent removed the child, or where there is a “grave risk” that return would “place the child in an intolerable situation.” Hague Convention, Arts. 13(a)–(b), Treaty Doc., at 10. A state may also refuse to return the child if doingso would contravene “fundamental principles . . . relating to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Art. 20, id., at 11.
This case concerns another exception to the return remedy. Article 12 of the Convention states the general rule that when a court receives a petition for return within one year after the child’s wrongful removal, the court “shall order the return of the child forthwith.” Id., at 9. Article 12 further provides that the court,
“where the proceedings have been commenced after the expiration of the period of one year [from the date of the wrongful removal], shall also order the return of the child, unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment.” Ibid.
Thus, at least in some cases, failure to file a petitionfor return within one year renders the return remedy unavailable.
The United States ratified the Hague Convention in 1988, and Congress implemented the Convention that same year through the International Child Abduc-tion Remedies Act (ICARA). 102Stat. 437, 42 U. S. C. §§11601–11610. That statute instructs courts to “decide the case in accordance with the Convention.” §11603(d). Echoing the Convention, ICARA further provides that “[c]hildren who are wrongfully removed . . . are to be promptly returned unless one of the narrow exceptions set forth in the Convention applies.” §11601(a)(4). Finally, ICARA requires the abducting parent to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Article 12’s exception to return applies. §11603(e)(2)(B).
Diana Lucia Montoya Alvarez and Manuel Jose Lozano are the parents of the girl at the center of this dispute. Montoya Alvarez and Lozano met and began dating in London in early 2004. Montoya Alvarez gave birth to a daughter in October 2005.
Montoya Alvarez and Lozano describe their relationship in starkly different terms. Lozano stated that they were “ ‘very happy together,’ ” albeit with “normal couple problems.” In re Lozano, 809 F. Supp. 2d 197, 204 (SDNY 2011). Montoya Alvarez described a pattern of physical and emotional abuse that included multiple incidents of rape and battery. The District Court found insufficient evidence to make specific findings about domestic violence but determined that Lozano’s claim that he never mistreated Montoya Alvarez was “not credible.” Id., at 206.
The parties also differ as to the child’s well-being during the first three years of her life. Lozano stated that he and the child had a very good relationship, and that the child was generally happy. Montoya Alvarez believed otherwise. In October 2008, Montoya Alvarez reported to the child’s doctor that she refused to speak at the nursery she attended, cried often, and wet the bed. Montoya Alvarez also stated that the child refused to speak when Lozano was present. The child’s nursery manager wrote that the girl was “ ‘very withdrawn,’ ” and noted that the home “ ‘environment obviously had a negative effect’ ” on her. Id., at 207. The District Court found insufficient evidence that Lozano had physically abused the child, but did conclude that the child had seen and heard her parents arguing at home.
In November 2008, when the child was just over three years old, Montoya Alvarez went to New York to visit her sister Maria. During that time, the child remained in London with Lozano and his visiting mother. When Montoya Alvarez returned on November 18, she became acutely concerned about the child’s fearful behavior around Lo-zano. The next day, Montoya Alvarez left with the child and never returned.
Montoya Alvarez and the child lived at a women’s shelter for the next seven months. After Montoya Alvarez was unable to find suitable long-term accommodations in the United Kingdom, she and the child left for France on July 3, 2009, and then for the United States, arriving five days later. Since their arrival, Montoya Alvarez and the child have lived with Montoya Alvarez’ sister Maria and her family in New York.
When they arrived in New York, Montoya Alvarez and the child began seeing a therapist at a family medical clinic. The therapist testified that, at first, the child was withdrawn and would wet herself. The therapist diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder. Within six months, however, the therapist described her as “ ‘a completely different child,’ ” who had stopped wetting herself, was excited to play with friends, and was able to speak freely about her emotions. Id., at 212. When Montoya Alvarez and the child returned to the therapist after Lo-zano filed a petition for the child’s return, the therapist noted that the child was doing well but did not wish to see her father.
In the meantime, Lozano attempted to find Montoya Alvarez and the child. Shortly after Montoya Alvarez left in November 2008, he called her sister Gloria in London, but eventually received legal advice not to speak with Montoya Alvarez’ family. A mediation service also sent several letters to Montoya Alvarez on Lozano’s behalf without receiving a response. In July 2009, Lozano filed an application for a court order in the United Kingdom “ ‘to ensure that he obtains regular contact with his [child] and plays an active role in [her] life.’ ” Id., at 210. He also sought court orders to compel Montoya Alvarez’ sisters and legal counsel, the child’s doctor and nursery, and various government offices in London to disclose the child’s whereabouts.
On March 15, 2010, after determining that the child was not in the United Kingdom (and suspecting that the child was in New York), Lozano filed a form with the Hague Convention Central Authority for England and Wales seeking to have the child returned. The United States Central Authority—the Office of Children’s Issues in the Department of State, see 22 CFR §94.2 (2013)—received the application on March 23, 2010. After the Office of Children’s Issues confirmed that Montoya Alvarez had entered the United States, Lozano located Montoya Alvarez’ address in New York. On November 10, 2010, more than 16 months after Montoya Alvarez and the child left the United Kingdom, Lozano filed a Petition for Return of Child pursuant to the Hague Convention and ICARA, 42 U. S. C. §11603, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
After a 2-day evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied Lozano’s petition. 809 F. Supp. 2d 197. The District Court concluded that Lozano had stated a prima facie case of wrongful removal under the Hague Convention. Id., at 219–220. Prior to her removal, the child was a habitual resident of the United Kingdom, see Hague Convention, Art. 4, and Lozano had custody rights that hewas actually exercising at the time of removal, see Arts. 3(a)–(b).
Because the petition was filed more than one year after the child’s wrongful removal, however, the District Court denied the petition on the basis that the child was now settled in New York. Id., at 230, 234. “Viewing the total-ity of the circumstances,” the court found sufficient indicia of “stability in her family, educational, social, and most importantly, home life,” id., at 233, to conclude that the child was settled in her current environment and that repatriation would be “extremely disruptive,” id., at 234. Lozano argued that the child should be returned forthwith because the 1-year period in Article 12 should be equitably tolled during the period that Montoya Alvarez concealed the child. The court rejected that argument, holding that the 1-year period could not be extended by equitable tolling. Id., at 228–229.
On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed. 697 F. 3d 41 (2012). The Court of Appeals agreed that the 1-year per-iod in Article 12 is not subject to equitable tolling. According to the court, unlike a statute of limitations that would prohibit the filing of a return petition after one year, the1-year period in Article 12 merely permits courts, after that period has run, to consider the interests of the child in settlement. Id., at 52. The Second Circuit concluded that allowing equitable tolling to delay consideration of the child’s interests would undermine the purpose of the Hague Convention. Id., at 54.
We granted certiorari to decide whether Article 12’s1-year period is subject to equitable tolling. 570 U. S. ___ (2013). Compare 697 F. 3d, at 50–55 (equitable tolling not available); and Yaman v. Yaman, 730 F. 3d 1, 12–16 (CA1 2013) (same), with Duarte v. Bardales, 526 F. 3d 563, 568–570 (CA9 2008) (equitable tolling available); and Furnes v. Reeves, 362 F. 3d 702, 723–724 (CA11 2004) (same). We hold that equitable tolling is not available, and therefore affirm.
Although this case concerns the application of equitable tolling to a treaty, we begin with a more familiar context: equitable tolling of federal statutes of limitations. As a general matter, equitable tolling pauses the running of, or “tolls,” a statute of limitations when a litigant has pursued his rights diligently but some extraordinary circumstance prevents him from bringing a timely action. See, e.g., Pace v. DiGuglielmo, 544 U. S. 408, 418 (2005) . Because the doctrine effectively extends an otherwise discrete limitations period set by Congress, whether equitable tolling is available is fundamentally a question of statutory intent. See, e.g., Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89, 95 (1990) ; Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U. S. 467 –480 (1986); Honda v. Clark, 386 U. S. 484, 501 (1967) .
As applied to federal statutes of limitations, the inquiry begins with the understanding that Congress “legislate[s] against a background of common-law adjudicatory principles.” Astoria Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Solimino, 501 U. S. 104, 108 (1991) . Equitable tolling, a long-established feature of American jurisprudence derived from “the old chancery rule,” Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U. S. 392, 397 (1946) , is just such a principle. See Young v. United States, 535 U. S. 43 –50 (2002) (“Congress must be presumed to draft limitations periods in light of this background principle”); Bailey v. Glover, 21 Wall. 342, 349–350 (1875). We therefore presume that equitable tolling applies if the period in question is a statute of limitations and if tolling is consistent with the statute. Young, supra, at 49–50 (“It is hornbook law that limitations periods are ‘customarily subject to “equitable tolling,” ’ unless tolling would be ‘inconsistent with the text of the relevant statute’ ” (citation omitted)).
The Hague Convention, of course, is a treaty, not a federal statute. For treaties, which are primarily “ ‘compact[s] between independent nations,’ ” Medellín v. Texas, 552 U. S. 491, 505 (2008) , our “duty [i]s to ascertain the intent of the parties” by looking to the document’s text and context, United States v. Choctaw Nation, 179 U. S. 494, 535 (1900) ; see also BG Group plc v. Republic of Argen-tina, post, at 10.
We conclude that the parties to the Hague Convention did not intend equitable tolling to apply to the 1-year period in Article 12. Unlike federal statutes of limitations, the Convention was not adopted against a shared background of equitable tolling. Even if the Convention were subject to a presumption that statutes of limitations may be tolled, the 1-year period in Article 12 is not a statute of limitations. And absent a presumption in favor of equitable tolling, nothing in the Convention warrants tolling the 1-year period.
First, there is no general presumption that equitable tolling applies to treaties. Congress is presumed to incorporate equitable tolling into federal statutes of limitations because equitable tolling is part of the established backdrop of American law. Rotella v. Wood, 528 U. S. 549, 560 (2000) (“[F]ederal statutes of limitations are generally subject to equitable principles of tolling”). It does not follow, however, that we can export such background principles of United States law to contexts outside their jurisprudential home.
It is particularly inappropriate to deploy this background principle of American law automatically when interpreting a treaty. “A treaty is in its nature a contract between . . . nations, not a legislative act.” Foster v. Neilson, 2 Pet. 253, 314 (1829) (Marshall, C. J., for the Court); see also 2 Debates on the Federal Constitution 506 (J. Elliot 2d ed. 1863) (James Wilson) (“[I]n their nature treaties originate differently from laws. They are made by equal parties, and each side has half of the bargain to make . . . ”). That distinction has been reflected in the way we interpret treaties. It is our “responsibility to read the treaty in a manner ‘consistent with the shared expectations of the contracting parties.’ ” Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U. S. 644, 650 (2004) (quoting Air France v. Saks, 470 U. S. 392, 399 (1985) ; emphasis added). Even if a background principle is relevant to the interpretation of federal statutes, it has no proper role in the interpretation of treaties unless that principle is shared by the parties to “an agreement among sovereign powers,” Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines Co., 516 U. S. 217, 226 (1996) .
Lozano has not identified a background principle of equitable tolling that is shared by the signatories to the Hague Convention. To the contrary, Lozano concedes that in the context of the Convention, “foreign courts have failed to adopt equitable tolling . . . because they lac[k] the presumption that we [have].” Tr. of Oral Arg. 19–20. While no signatory state’s court of last resort has resolved the question, intermediate courts of appeals in several states have rejected equitable tolling. See Cannon v. Cannon,  EWCA (Civ) 1330,  1 W. L. R. 32, ¶51 (Eng.), (rejecting the “tolling rule” as “too crude an approach” for the Convention); Kubera v. Kubera, 3 B. C. L. R. (5th) 121, ¶64, 317 D. L. R. (4th) 307, ¶64 (2010) (Can.) (equitable tolling “has not been adopted in other jurisdictions, including Canada”); see also HJ v. Secretary for Justice,  NZFLR 1005, ¶53 (CA), appeal dism’d on other grounds,  2 NZLR 289; A. C. v. P. C.,  HKEC 839, 2005 WL 836263, ¶55, (Hong Kong Ct. 1st Instance). The American presumption that federal statutes of limitations can be equitably tolled therefore does not apply to this multilateral treaty. Cf. Eastern Airlines, Inc. v. Floyd, 499 U. S. 530 –545, and n. 10 (1991) (declining to adopt liability for psychic injury under the Warsaw Convention because “the unavailability of compensation for purely psychic injury in many common and civil law countries at the time of the Warsaw Conference persuades us that the signatories had no specific intentto include such a remedy in the Convention” (footnote omitted)).
It does not matter to this conclusion that Congress enacted a statute to implement the Hague Convention. See ICARA, 42 U. S. C. §§11601–11610. ICARA does not address the availability of equitable tolling. Nor does it purport to alter the Convention. See §11601(b)(2) (“The provisions of [ICARA] are in addition to and not in lieu of the provisions of the Convention”). In fact, Congress explicitly recognized “the need for uniform international interpretation of the Convention.” §11601(b)(3)(B). Congress’ mere enactment of implementing legislation did not somehow import background principles of American law into the treaty interpretation process, thereby altering our understanding of the treaty itself.
Even if the presumption in favor of equitable tolling had force outside of domestic law, we have only applied that presumption to statutes of limitations. See Hallstrom v. Tillamook County, 493 U. S. 20, 27 (1989) (no equitable tolling of a 60-day presuit notice requirement that does not operate as a statute of limitations). The 1-year period in Article 12 is not a statute of limitations.
As a general matter, “[s]tatutes of limitations establish the period of time within which a claimant must bring an action.” Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 571 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 4). They characteristically embody a “policy of repose, designed to protect defendants.” Burnett v. New York Central R. Co., 380 U. S. 424, 428 (1965) . And they foster the “elimination of stale claims, and certainty about a plaintiff’s opportunity for recovery and a defendant’s potential liabilities.” Rotella, supra, at 555.
In Young, 535 U. S. 43 , we evaluated whether those characteristics of statutes of limitations were present in the “three-year lookback period” for tax liabilities in bankruptcy proceedings. The Bankruptcy Code favors tax claims less than three years old in two respects: Such claims cannot be discharged, and they have priority over certain others in bankruptcy proceedings. See 11 U. S. C. §§507(a)(8)(A)(i), 523(a)(1)(A). If the Internal Revenue Service “sleeps on its rights” by failing to prosecute those claims within three years, however, then those mechanisms for enforcing claims against bankrupt taxpayers are eliminated. Young, 535 U. S., at 47. We concluded that the lookback period “serves the same ‘basic policies [furthered by] all limitations provisions,’ ” ibid. (quoting Ro-tella, 528 U. S., at 555), i.e., certainty and repose. We accordingly held that it was a limitations periodpresumptively subject to equitable tolling. 535 U. S.,at 47.
Unlike the 3-year lookback period in Young, expiration of the 1-year period in Article 12 does not eliminate the remedy the Convention affords the left-behind parent—namely, the return of the child. Before one year has elapsed, Article 12 provides that the court “shall order the return of the child forthwith.” Treaty Doc., at 9. But even after that period has expired, the court “shall also order the return of the child, unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled.” Ibid. The continued availability of the return remedy after one year preserves the possibility of relief for the left-behind parent and prevents reposefor the abducting parent. Rather than establishing any certainty about the respective rights of the parties, the expiration of the 1-year period opens the door to consideration of a third party’s interests, i.e., the child’s interest in settlement. Because that is not the sort of interest addressed by a statute of limitations, we decline to treat the 1-year period as a statute of limitations.
Without a presumption of equitable tolling, the Convention does not support extending the 1-year period during concealment. Article 12 explicitly provides that the 1-year period commences on “the date of the wrongful removal or retention,” and makes no provision for an extension of that period. Id., at 9. Further, the practical effect of the tolling that Lozano requests would be to delay the commencement of the 1-year period until the left-behind parent discovers the child’s location. Commencing the 1-year period upon discovery is the obvious alternative to the commencement date the drafters actually adopted because the subject of the Hague Convention, child abduction, is naturally associated with the sort of concealment that might justify equitable tolling under other circumstances. See 697 F. 3d, at 51, n. 8 (“It would have been a simple matter, if the state parties to the Convention wished to take account of the possibility that an abducting parent might make it difficult for the petitioning parent to discover the child’s whereabouts, to run the period ‘from the date that the petitioning parent learned [or, could reasonably have learned] of the child’s whereabouts’ ” (alterations in original)). Given that the drafters did not adopt that alternative, the natural implication is that they did not intend the 1-year period to commence on that later date. Cf. Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 10–11). We cannot revisit that choice.
Lozano contends that equitable tolling is nevertheless consistent with the purpose of the Hague Convention because it is necessary to deter child abductions. In his view, “absent equitable tolling, concealment ‘probably will’ result in non-return,” which will in turn encourage abduction. Reply Brief 14–15; see also Duarte, 526 F. 3d, at 570.
We agree, of course, that the Convention reflects a design to discourage child abduction. But the Convention does not pursue that goal at any cost. The child’s interest in choosing to remain, Art. 13, or in avoiding physical or psychological harm, Art. 13(b), may overcome the return remedy. The same is true of the child’s interest in settlement. See supra, at 2; see also In re M,  1 A. C. 1288, 1310 (Eng. 2007) (opinion of Baroness Hale of Richmond) (“These children should not be made to suffer for the sake of general deterrence of the evil of child abduction world wide”). We are unwilling to apply equitable tolling principles that would, in practice, rewrite the treaty. See Chan v. Korean Air Lines, Ltd., 490 U. S. 122 –135 (1989) (“ ‘[T]o alter, amend, or add to any treaty by inserting any clause, whether small or great, importantor trivial, would be . . . to make, and not to construe a treaty’ ” (quoting The Amiable Isabella, 6 Wheat. 1, 71 (1821) (Story, J., for the Court))).
Nor is it true that an abducting parent who conceals a child’s whereabouts will necessarily profit by running out the clock on the 1-year period. American courts have found as a factual matter that steps taken to promote concealment can also prevent the stable attachments that make a child “settled.” See, e.g., Mendez Lynch v. Mendez Lynch, 220 F. Supp. 2d 1347, 1363–1364 (MD Fla. 2002) (children not settled when they “lived in seven different locations” in 18 months); Wigley v. Hares, 82 So. 3d 932, 942 (Fla. App. 2011) (“The mother purposely kept him out of all community activities, sports, and even church to avoid detection by the father”); In re Coffield, 96 Ohio App. 3d 52, 58, 644 N. E. 2d 662, 666 (1994) (child not settled when the abducting parent “was attempting to hide [child’s] identity” by withholding child from school and other organized activities). Other signatories to the Hague Convention have likewise recognized that concealment may be taken into account in the factual determination whether the child is settled. See, e.g., Cannon,  1 W. L. R., ¶¶52–61. See also Kubera, 3 B. C. L. R. (5th), ¶47, 317 D. L. R. (4th), ¶47; A. C. v. P. C.,  HKEC 839, ¶39, 2005 WL 836263, ¶39. Equitable tolling is therefore neither required by the Convention nor the only available means to advance its objectives.
Finally, Lozano contends that the Hague Convention leaves room for United States courts to apply their own “common law doctrine of equitable tolling” to the 1-year period in Article 12 without regard to whether the drafters of the Convention intended equitable tolling to apply. Brief for Petitioner 25. Specifically, Lozano contends that the Convention recognizes additional sources of law that permit signatory states to return abducted children even when return is not available or required pursuant to the Convention. Article 34 of the Convention provides that “for the purpos[e] of obtaining the return of a child,” the Convention “shall not restrict the application of an international instrument in force between the State of origin and the State addressed” or the application of “other law of the State addressed.” Treaty Doc., at 13; see also Art. 18, id., at 11 (“The provisions of this Chapter do not limit the power of a judicial or administrative authority to order the return of the child at any time”). In Lozano’s view, equitable tolling principles constitute “other law” that should apply here.
That contention mistakes the nature of equitable tolling as this Court has applied it. We do not apply equitable tolling as a matter of some independent authority to reconsider the fairness of legislative judgments balancing the needs for relief and repose. See supra, at 7–8. To the contrary, we may apply equitable tolling to the Hague Convention only if we determine that the treaty drafters so intended. See Choctaw Nation, 179 U. S., at 535. For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that they did not.
The Court of Appeals correctly concluded that the 1-year period in Article 12 of the Hague Convention is not subject to equitable tolling. We therefore affirm that court’s judgment.
It is so ordered.