MANHATTAN (CN) - The Second Circuit found it "clearly inappropriate" Friday that a federal judge here tried to make an abused wife who fled Singapore with her child pay her husband's legal expenses.
"Given the record in this case, we cannot envision any scenario where an award of expenses would not be clearly inappropriate," Chief Judge Robert Katzmann wrote for a three-judge panel.
As laid out in the court's 32-page ruling, Abdollah Naghash Souratgar and Lee Jen Fair's marriage was an unhappy one.
The couple married in Singapore in 2007, and Lee, who hailed from Malaysia, said the abuse began in 2008. She said the Iranian-born Souratgar kicked her when she was pregnant, and that the beatings continued after she gave birth to a son, Shayan, in January 2009.
In addition to striking her while she breastfed the baby, Souratgar forced her to engage in certain sexual acts, Lee said.
Lee fled to her sister's in Singapore in 2010 and left Singapore with Shayan a year later.
Souratgar hired a private investigator who tracked them to Dutchess County, New York.
He petitioned for the return of his son to Singapore under the Hague Convention and the International Child Abduction Remedies Act.
Though a federal judge found that Souratgar had exaggerated his own account of spousal abuse - that Lee had supposedly come at him "with a knife and chopper a few times," the court ruled for the husband after a nine-day hearing in Manhattan.
After the Second Circuit affirmed the repatriation order in 2013, Souratgar petitioned the court to make Lee cover the cost of moving Shayan back to Singapore.
Though he cut the requested amount by more than half, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel did just that in 2014, awarding Souratgar $283,000 in expenses for attorney's fees, legal witnesses in the case, and the cost of searching for and finding his son.
Castel said Lee could finance the award by accessing her pension in Singapore and selling her one-third stake in a family house.
Reversing Friday, the Second Circuit said Lee had "established that Souratgar had committed multiple, unilateral acts of intimate partner violence against her, and that her removal of the child from the habitual country was related to that violence."
"Her departure was related to Souratgar's history of intimate partner violence," Katzmann wrote. "Therefore, we find that Souratgar bears some responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the ."
Katzmann refused to create a "bright-line rule" for future cases involving the award of expenses, saying only that courts need to look at "all relevant equitable factors."
He also posited a hypothetical situation in which a wife slapped a husband, after which the husband fled with their child and used the slap as a way to avoid paying his wife's legal expenses.
"We do not express an opinion about whether a single slap in every instance amounts to the level of intimate partner violence that would render an award clearly inappropriate," Katzmann wrote in a footnote.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Raymond Lohier called out the failure of international child-abduction conventions to consider partner violence as a mitigating factor.
Lohier said the U.S. District Court also erred in determining Lee's ability to pay the expenses by cashing in her pension and family home, since these assets were inaccessible to her at the time of the ruling.
Lohier also agreed no bright-line rules are needed. "Given the complicated nature of domestic abuse ... it is easy to see why Congress would conclude that the flexibility equity affords is better suited to determining the propriety of a fee award than any bright-line presumption," he wrote.