Eleventh Circuit Applies the “Fugitive Disentitlement” Doctrine to Dismiss Action

In Vibe Ener v. Martin, No. 19-12258 (11th Cir. Feb. 22, 2021), the panel reviews a district court’s dismissal of a civil action because the plaintiff fled the United States, applying the “fugitive disentitlement” doctrine. “The fugitive disentitlement doctrine empowers courts to dismiss the lawsuits or appeals of fugitives from the law.”

The federal action was a consequence of a state family-court action, unwinding a relationship between the parties and settling custody of two children. Plaintiff Vibe Ener, a Finnish native, “took the children to Europe …. removed the children from school, left her primary residence, disconnected her cell phone, and blocked her email accounts.” Thereafter, the state court held Vibe Ener in criminal contempt. “The order quoted the provision in the injunction that allowed Florida officers to arrest her if she violated the injunction.”

Vibe Ener then launched this suit “for breaching the custody agreements and for an array of torts allegedly arising out of the family-court litigation: defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, and abuse of process.” Martin moved to dismiss the complaint under the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. The district court scheduled a status conference on the motion. Vibe Ener failed to appear by phone and the district court dismissed her action.

The Eleventh Circuit affirms. “A court may apply the fugitive disentitlement doctrine to dismiss a lawsuit or appeal if [1] the party against whom it is invoked is a fugitive, [2] her fugitive status has a sufficient connection to the present action, and [3] dismissal is ‘necessary to effectuate the concerns underlying’ the doctrine.”

The panel first finds that plaintiff is a fugitive. “Vibe Ener argues that she is not a fugitive because Martin supported her decision to leave Florida and the custody agreements allow her to move to Europe. But those factual allegations do not change the realities that make her a fugitive: she knows police are entitled to arrest her if she returns to Florida, and she remains absent.” The action also “springs from the family-court proceedings from which she fled or alleges that Martin violated the same custody agreements that the family court found she violated by disappearing without notice.”

Finally, it was equitable to apply the doctrine in this case. “Vibe Ener ensured that she stood only to benefit from court orders by fleeing from the jurisdiction of the family court after the litigation went poorly for her and then collaterally attacking those proceedings by suing about the same issues in federal court. And, with Vibe Ener’s whereabouts unknown, the district court faced the prospect of issuing unenforceable orders … Vibe Ener’s filings also prejudice the [defendant and his spouse] because they are filled with scandalous accusations against them and [they] must pay their lawyers to defend against her lawsuit. Dismissal prevents Vibe Ener from evading the jurisdiction of one court while attempting to invoke the jurisdiction of another court to her one-way advantage.” The panel then dismisses with prejudice.

Concurring, Judge Jordan notes that dismissal for “fugitive disentitlement” is typically without prejudice, so that “[i]f and when [plaintiff] is no longer a fugitive, she could be allowed to refile her lawsuit, assuming that the statute of limitations has not expired.” But because Vibe Ener “does not argue that the dismissal pursuant to the fugitive disentitlement doctrine should have been without prejudice,” Judge Jordan “join[s] the Court’s opinion in full.”

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