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Tillery v. Lynch

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 11, 2016



Thomas Stylianos, Jr. on brief for petitioner.

Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General, Jennifer P. Levings, Senior Litigation Counsel and Tim Ramnitz, Attorney, Office of Immigration Litigation, Civil Division, on brief for respondent.

Before Howard, Chief Judge, Selya and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

HOWARD, Chief Judge.

Petitioner Sonia Peters Tillery overstayed her visa and was later subjected to removal proceedings. In response Tillery applied, unsuccessfully, for special rule cancellation of removal for battered spouses, a relief provision enacted pursuant to the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 ("VAWA"). See 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(2)(A). In her petition, she challenges the BIA's determination that she needed to demonstrate a good faith marriage to be eligible for VAWA relief. We are unable meaningfully to review the BIA's ruling in this case, and so we vacate the BIA's decision and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Tillery, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, entered the United States in February 2004 (then, as Sonia Peters). She was allowed to stay until May 13, 2004, as a non-immigrant B-1 temporary visitor for business. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(15), 1201(a). Tillery remained in this country beyond the appointed time and eventually met and married Keial Tillery, a United States citizen.

Shortly after their May 2008 wedding, Tillery's husband was incarcerated and remained imprisoned for approximately a year. He was released in June 2009, and, according to Tillery, the couple resumed living together along with a third person, Annis Toney. Tillery says that her husband soon began verbally and physically abusing her, including forcing her to engage in sexual conduct against her will. At the same time, he pursued an I-130 spousal visa petition on her behalf, which the government denied after he failed to appear at the scheduled interview in August 2009. According to Tillery, her husband disappeared the day before the interview, and she has not heard from him since.

The Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against Tillery for overstaying her original temporary visa. Conceding removability, Tillery indicated her intent to apply for VAWA special rule cancellation of removal. See 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(2). To qualify for this discretionary relief, an applicant is required to demonstrate: (i) battery or extreme cruelty by a spouse who is a United States citizen; (ii) a continuous period of physical presence; (iii) good moral character; (iv) not having an aggravated felony conviction and not being inadmissible or deportable for certain specified reasons prescribed by statute (though, an agency waiver may apply); and (v) extreme hardship following removal. Id. § 1229b(b)(2)(A).

In 2010, Tillery filed her VAWA application (through a Form EOIR-42B), and the Immigration Judge ("IJ") held a merits hearing in February 2012, during which Tillery and the housemate, Toney, testified to the alleged abuse. Their collective description, however, gives very little substantive detail. Indeed, Tillery's entire direct testimony spans a total of six transcript pages, with a mere eight questions and answers (about one and one-half transcript pages) devoted to the incidents of domestic abuse. Toney's account adds little more than a brief description amounting to about a half-page of transcript.

During the hearing, the IJ focused on discrepancies between the two witnesses' accounts of the married couple's living arrangement during the time frame when the alleged abuse occurred. For example, while Tillery claimed that they lived at the apartment together after her husband was released from prison, Toney testified that Tillery's husband Keial only "visited" and "slept over once in a while." Toney also explained that Keial Tillery "never really lived there, " and that when Keial was released from prison, Sonia Tillery "wouldn't allow him in [her] apartment because he was getting more violent and swearing."

To investigate his concerns about the inconsistencies, the IJ recalled the petitioner to the witness stand. Her subsequent testimony left the IJ troubled about the sincerity of the marriage itself. Counsel for Tillery and for the government disagreed over whether Tillery was required to prove that hers was a good faith marriage in order to be eligible for VAWA relief. Neither side, however, provided the IJ with legal authority on that point.

In a written decision denying the application, the IJ expressed doubts about whether "the marriage was a sincere marriage" and further remarked that Tillery's behavior "subsequent to her marriage and the fact that she has testified non-credibly with respect to the living arrangements raises the inference that the marriage was not for purposes other than obtaining immigration benefits." The judge stopped short, however, of finding that the marriage was not "bona fide[ ]." The IJ ultimately denied Tillery's VAWA application on the ...

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