Court Rejects Suit By Tennessee Dad In Custody Case - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Court Rejects Suit By Tennessee Dad In Custody Case

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A Tennessee father locked in an international custody battle with his ex-wife in Japan cannot sue a mediator-turned-state judge who presided over the dispute, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The court ruled that Dr. Christopher Savoie's lawsuit didn't state a valid claim against 21st District Judge James G. Martin III and the law firm of Stites & Harbison.

The suit against Martin and the law firm grew out of Savoie's custody dispute with his ex-wife, Noriko Esaki, who took the couple's children to Japan and did not return in 2010. Martin, who used to work for Stites & Harbison before becoming a judge, lifted a restraining order keeping Esaki from taking the children out of the country.

Judge Boyce Martin wrote for a three-judge panel that James Martin was entitled to judicial immunity and that Stites & Harbison did not violate the Tennessee father's rights. But, Martin wrote, the state judge probably should have passed the case on to another jurist because he previously served as a mediator in the case before being appointed to the bench.

"In retrospect, Judge Martin probably should have recused himself because of his prior involvement in this clearly contested custody dispute," Martin wrote for judges Karen Caldwell and David W. McKeague. "This alone, however, does not nullify his judicial immunity in the present proceedings."

The court also found that Savoie cannot pursue a claim of "vicarious liability" against Stites & Harbison for allegedly failing to properly train and supervise Martin.

Christopher and Noriko Esaki Savoie moved from Japan to Franklin, Tennessee, in June 2008, but separated. The custody dispute that ensued touched off an international diplomatic furor, with Savoie being arrested in Japan in 2010 as he tried to take his children back to the United States.

Savoie, a Japanese-American citizen, filed for divorce in Williamson County in 2008 and, under Tennessee law, went into mandatory mediation. The 21st Judicial District appointed James Martin to mediate the dispute. After ending his role as mediator, Martin became a judge in that district.

Judge Timothy Easter granted the couple an absolute divorce in January 2009 and approved a custody agreement allowing Savoie's ex-wife, Noriko Esaki, to take the couple's children, then 9 and 7, to Japan during summer vacations, but required her to maintain a Tennessee residency and live within 100 miles of Savoie.

In February 2009, Noriko Esaki sent her ex-husband an email saying she did not like the children "becoming American" and "losing Japanese identity." A judge later set in place a restraining order keeping Esaki in the United States with the children.

A hearing to determine the extent of the restraining order and the possession of the passports was held March 30, 2009. The case was originally assigned to Circuit Court Judge Timothy Easter but got transferred to Martin. Before the hearing started, his divorce attorney Virginia Lee Story, told Martin that Christopher Savoie had no objection to his hearing the case.

A court awarded Savoie sole custody of the children in August 2009. Esaki has been charged in Tennessee with felony custodial interference.

Noriko Savoie took the children to Japan in August 2009 and has refused to return them or allow her ex-husband to speak to them. Christopher Savoie went to Japan a month later, attempting to bring his children back to the U.S. after another judge granted him full custody.

Japanese police arrested Christopher Savoie on September 28, 2009 after he took the children from his ex-wife as they walked to school.

He spent 18 days in a Japanese jail before being released and returning to Franklin. Japan at the time did not follow an international convention on civil child abduction or custody orders from other countries. In most Japanese divorces, women are given full custody of children, and fathers are denied visitation.

Japan signed on to a global child custody treaty in 2011.

NC5 Investigates: Abducted to Japan

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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