Lawyer takes on dramatic international child abduction case

 Attorney helped reunite two daughters with their mother in the United States

By Brandon Gee
The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON — After a seven-year drama that included living on the run in Europe, a “Dateline” NBC special, litigation in the federal and state courts, and a denied cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, two young girls will be reunited with their Turkish father by order of New Hampshire’s highest court.

Ropes & Gray represented the father, Ozgur Yaman, in a case that’s the latest to bolster the Boston-based firm’s growing reputation for expertise in international child abduction cases, a specialty that quickly grew out of a first-year associate’s single engagement.

Fifteen years ago, securities litigator Christopher G. Green took on a Hague Convention matter on an expedited basis in federal court. Green prevailed and a mother was reunited with her children after two years of separation. The following year, he took on another such case.

“Believe it or not, they are uncommon enough that I was the only lawyer in the nation — as a second-year associate at Ropes & Gray — who had handled two [Hague Convention cases] at that time,” says Green, now a partner at his firm.

Since then, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the U.S. State Department have referred cases to Ropes on a regular basis, according to Green, who has authored multiple Supreme Court amicus briefs for the center in matters interpreting the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

Under the treaty, when a child is wrongfully removed from his or her country of “habitual residence” in violation of a valid custody order, contracting nations must return the child immediately unless more than a year has elapsed since the abduction and the child is “now settled.”

In recent years, Green has remained involved in the cases, but he has largely delegated them to younger attorneys hungry for high-stakes, fast-paced litigation experience. The Yaman case was litigated primarily by associate Daniel V. Ward.

The largely undisputed facts of the case read like a Hollywood script. Ozgur Yaman first met his American wife, Linda Yaman, while the two were in graduate school in the U.S. They later married and relocated to Turkey. The marriage broke down when Linda began to suspect that Ozgur was sexually abusing the older of his two daughters.

In divorce proceedings, however, a Turkish family court concluded after an investigation that the abuse allegations were false. Ozgur was granted sole custody of the children. The decision was upheld on appeal, but before it became final Linda absconded with the couple’s daughters, escaping by sea to Greece with the help of Gus Zamora, a self-proclaimed “snatch-back” specialist whose Florida firm specializes in “international child recovery and security services.”

Unable to obtain passports for her daughters, Linda remained in Europe, ultimately traveling to tiny Andorra with her daughters hidden under pillows in the backseat of a car and settling there for two and a half years. With the help of Boston-based Bingham McCutchen, Linda ultimately obtained one-time-use passports for her daughters and returned to the United States.

Their experience was chronicled in a “Dateline” special that kept Linda’s location secret, but Ozgur, who had been searching unsuccessfully for his daughters, received notice when the passports were issued and ultimately discovered that Linda had resettled in New Hampshire, where Ropes & Gray filed a petition in federal court on his behalf.

There was no doubt that Linda had wrongfully removed the children — now 11 and 12 — from Turkey, but her daughters had lived with her since 2004 and in New Hampshire since 2010, so the case turned on whether the children were “now settled.”

“[I]f children were chattel, I would take the children from Mrs. Yaman and give them to Mr. Yaman,” U.S. District Court Judge Paul J. Barbadoro said at the 2013 bench trial. “But children aren’t chattel, and the convention doesn’t treat children as chattel. It treats children as human beings and recognizes that they have a strong interest in being reunited with the parent … from whom they were wrongfully removed. But they also have a strong interest in living their li[ves] where they’re settled.”

Ozgur appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the one-year period that triggers the availability of the “now settled” defense should be equitably tolled since Linda, still represented by Bingham, had actively concealed the children while he had searched in good faith for them. It was an issue of first impression for the 1st Circuit, which upheld the District Court judge’s finding that equitable tolling did not apply to the treaty, a decision that was later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in another case. Ozgur’s own cert petition to the Supreme Court was denied.

But the battle was far from over, as Ozgur also was seeking relief in New Hampshire state court under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which most states — but not Massachusetts — have adopted and which essentially requires that the custody decisions of states be respected and enforced by courts in other states, with some limited exceptions. Ward says the case is believed to be the first to test the international application of the statute.

“We didn’t win, but got good findings,” Ward says of the federal litigation.

Specifically, the U.S. District Court judge found that Linda had failed to provide clear and convincing evidence of abuse and had violated a valid Turkish custody order. Those facts would loom large in the New Hampshire Circuit Court, which ruled that the Turkish custody order should be enforced.

The girls’ return to Turkey was delayed, though, while Linda, now represented by Vermont firm Vitt, Brannen & Loftus, appealed. This month, the N.H. Supreme Court upheld the decision, rejecting her arguments that the Turkish court proceedings had violated fundamental principles of human rights and due process and that a return to Turkey was not in her daughters’ best interests.

“The only issue under the Hague Convention treaty that a federal court is to decide is where to send the kids for any resolution of any custody dispute,” Green explains. “But then you still have the right to go fight the custody issue. We would have preferred to have the federal court send the kids back to Turkey and have custody issues resolved there. Once the court denied that, we said, ‘OK, we’ll litigate here.’ And so we litigated the issue in New Hampshire. In a way, it unfolded exactly the way it’s supposed to, and we won in New Hampshire.”

From a litigator’s perspective, Green says, international child abduction cases offer the best kind of pro bono work around, at least at his firm.

“Dan has tried a federal case, argued to the 1st Circuit, argued a case on the merits in New Hampshire, and ended up before New Hampshire Supreme Court — all on the same case,” Green says. “It’s very interesting stuff from a human perspective, but it’s also super interesting legal work for a litigator.”

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