Maryland's highest court yesterday affirmed a $3 million judgment in favor of an Anne Arundel County man whose sons were illegally taken to Egypt by their mother and grandmother six years ago, handing down a decision that experts said allows parents to seek damages from family members who abduct their children.
The Court of Appeals found that Nermeen Khalifa Shannon and her mother, Afaf N. Khalifa, had planned the "particularly heinous" abductions of Adam Shannon, then 4, and Jason, less than a year old, and that their father, Michael Shannon of Millersville, has the right to seek civil relief. The court also rejected the women's claim that the award was excessive.
The Khalifas "consciously and knowingly have deprived a father of the love and comfort of his two children for an extended period of time," the court said in an opinion written by Judge Lynne A. Battaglia. " ... Evidence of the ongoing absence of the children also indicates to us that [Michael] Shannon will never be fully compensated for the loss of society and companionship that he suffered at the hands of the appellants."
The ruling carries no legal weight in Egypt, where the two boys are believed to be living in a lavish Cairo compound, but Bryce D. Neier, a North Carolina attorney concentrating in domestic law and international child abduction and custody cases, said it was the first time he'd heard of a parent in the United States filing a civil lawsuit against another parent over an international kidnapping.
"In my opinion, this is groundbreaking," he said. "Obviously, I think this particular case from Maryland is about to cause an avalanche of other parents trying to do the same thing."
Jeremy Morley, a New York-based international family law attorney, said he didn't have hard numbers but that international child abductions are "an enormous problem.
"We only see the tip of the iceberg. Many cases are never reported," he said.
Michael Shannon, a 47-year-old retail manager, last saw his children on Aug. 18, 2001, when he handed them off to his wife, from whom he was later divorced, for what he thought was a trip to New York City. He said he has never stopped fighting to be reunited with his boys, but the ruling has given him a sense of vindication, at least in the legal sense:
"I can see, 50 years from now, that there'll be lawyers citing Shannon v. Khalifa."
He said he has spoken to the children, now 7 and 11, only by telephone in the years that they have been gone. He recalled speaking to his eldest son soon after he went to Egypt.
"He said, "When are you and Pop coming to get me? I'm not in America anymore.' Then six months later, he says, 'I hope bulldozers knock your house down.' They've been fully brainwashed over the past six years."
At the time of their disappearance, Michael Shannon had custody of Adam, and Nermeen Khalifa Shannon had custody of Jason. Each parent had visitation rights with the other child. Shannon was later awarded custody of Jason, too.
Afaf Khalifa served a three-year sentence, and was subsequently deported for helping her daughter abduct Adam from the United States. Nermeen Khalifa Shannon, who holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship, will face criminal charges if she returns to the United States.
William C. Brennan Jr., a Prince George's County lawyer who represents the Khalifa family, did not respond yesterday to several messages seeking comment. Brennan argued in his appeal of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court's December 2006 judgment that Michael Shannon needed to show a financial loss of services from not having his sons, that he had no standing to complain about the loss of visitation of his youngest son, of whom he didn't initially have custody, and that the $3 million award was disproportionately large.
Michael Shannon said the Khalifas, a wealthy family with multimillion-dollar homes throughout the Middle East and Switzerland, also own property in the United States. But he added that they may have sold it to avoid paying the judgment. That could not be verified yesterday.
"We have a clear plan in place with respect to the award," said Stephen J. Cullen, one of Shannon's attorneys. "Obviously, I don't want to show my hand. My personal experience dealing with various people in the Egyptian government, including a face-to-face meeting with a representative of the Egyptian government at The Hague in the Netherlands in 2006, is that they would like to resolve this case."
He heralded the decision as a victory for Maryland parents.
"Until this case was issued today, it was not clear whether a parent who was left behind in this state after their children were abducted to another state or country, had any way of suing an abusing parent," said Cullen. "These parental abductions are becoming a blight on our society. Parents are moving children from state to state, moving them overseas, left, right and center."
Morley said Egypt is not among the more than 70 countries, including the United States, that are part of the Hague Convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction, which requires those countries to return abducted children to the country of their habitual residence. He said that civil remedies to international child abduction cases, as taken by Michael Shannon, are relatively unheard of, and mostly not very effective.
"It sounds to me like Maryland courts are really trying to get tough on these cases," Morley said.