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Cojocari v. Sessions

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 11, 2017

Vladimir Cojocari & Veronica Moraru, Petitioners,
Jefferson B. Sessions III, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent.

          Argued May 17, 2017

         Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Nos. A088-431-779, A088-431-780.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Manion and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Vladimir Cojocari, a citizen of Moldova, seeks asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. His wife Veronica Moraru is a derivative applicant for this relief. The immigration judge denied the application and or- dered the couple removed, and the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed their appeal. The couple has petitioned for review in this court under 8 U.S.C. § 1252.

         We grant their petition. The Board's decision rested on the immigration judge's adverse credibility finding. Judicial review of credibility determinations is deferential, and reviewing courts rarely overturn credibility findings by agency adjudicators. Such findings are not beyond judicial review, however. This is one of those relatively unusual cases where the agency's credibility finding is arbitrary and capricious. As we detail below, the immigration judge made mountains out of molehills, fashioned inconsistencies from whole cloth, and held Cojocari's efforts to obtain corroborating documents against him. We remand for a fresh assessment of Cojocari's credibility, preferably by a different immigration judge.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Cojocari's Experience with Political Persecution

         Vladimir Cojocari and Veronica Moraru are citizens of Moldova, a former Soviet republic that was under Communist control as recently as 2009. According to the U.S. Department of State, corruption is rampant in Moldova, and torture by police and prison officials has been widely reported.

         Cojocari's political troubles began in 2007 while he was a student at the Academy of Economic Studies in Chi§inau, Moldova's capital city. Cojocari became involved with the Ali-anta Moldova Noastra (AMN), which is translated as "Our Moldova Alliance." AMN was a liberal democratic group that opposed government corruption and backed the mayoral campaign of a reform candidate.

         Cojocari claims that Moldovan police and other unknown parties persecuted him because of his political activism. He says that he was arrested and beaten on several occasions between June 2007, around the time of the Chi§inau mayoral election, and October 2009, shortly before he and Veronica traveled to the United States. We describe these incidents below, drawing from the immigration judge's decision as well as the administrative record. The judge concluded that Co-jocari's testimony was not credible overall, with specific exceptions. Nevertheless, the government has introduced no evidence actually rebutting Cojocari's claims concerning his persecution. Cojocari, conversely, has introduced substantial documentary evidence-including hospital and arrest records-that corroborates his testimony about these incidents.

         Cojocari says that he was first arrested on June 23, 2007. He testified that authorities transported him to the central police station in Chi§inau and interrogated him about his political activities. Police also ordered him to sign a document agreeing to become a police informant and not to cooperate with opposition parties. He refused. Cojocari was held overnight and repeatedly beaten. The following day, he was released from custody and promptly checked himself into a hospital. According to hospital records that Cojocari submitted, he was diagnosed with blunt, closed-chest trauma and contusions and abrasions, injuries consistent with his report of the beatings.

         Cojocari was next arrested on September 28, 2007. He was again held overnight. He testified that on this occasion, he was not beaten but police threatened him and again pressured him to sign some documents. Again he refused. Police then warned him that he "took the wrong decision" and that they would "see each other again in the near future."

         Over eighteen months passed without further incident. In early April 2009, Cojocari joined other AMN members in a protest over recent parliamentary elections. The protest started peacefully but quickly turned violent. Cojocari testified that he did not participate in any violence. He was nevertheless arrested and "sentenced" to a week of detention, during which time he said he was beaten again. Cojocari was released after nine days. He checked himself into a hospital. Medical records show he was diagnosed with cerebral trauma, a concussion, and various wounds and abrasions, again consistent with his report of beatings. Following this detention, Cojocari hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the general prosecutor's office in Chi§inau. He also sought help at both AMN and Democratic Party headquarters, but nobody was willing to help him. Cojocari decided to lie low for a while. He and his wife Veronica moved to her parents' home in the riverside village of Gura Galbenei, about thirty miles outside the capital city.

         On August 28, 2009, Cojocari was detained yet again while leaving the Academy of Economic Studies back in Chi§inau. (His reasons for being present at the academy that day are somewhat murky, as discussed below.) According to Cojocari, police interrogated him and a detective told him the complaint he had filed with the prosecutor had "no value." Cojocari says he was beaten and held in a cell for three days without food or water. After he was released, Cojocari again went to the hospital, where records show he was diagnosed with a closed fracture in his arm and multiple bruises. Veronica was pregnant at the time. She met Cojocari at the hospital and told him that government officials had visited their home and harassed her. Veronica became so distressed as they spoke that she became physically ill and ultimately suffered a miscarriage. At that point, Cojocari and Veronica decided to flee Moldova. They applied for visas so they could travel to the United States.

         A final incident occurred on October 25, 2009, shortly before the couple were scheduled to depart for the United States. Cojocari testified that he was "kidnapped" by a group of unknown assailants who told him that people who "ask for too much justice are viewed as unwelcome elements in Mol-dovan society." The men beat Cojocari until he blacked out, then left him bruised and battered in a field. Following the attack, Cojocari received medical treatment for more than a week. Despite that setback, Cojocari and Veronica departed Moldova as scheduled. They arrived in Chicago on November 6, 2009.

         B. History of the Case

         In May 2010, well in advance of the one-year filing deadline, the couple applied for asylum pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(A). They also requested withholding of removal under 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b)(3)(A), and protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture ("CAT") as implemented through 8 C.F.R. §§ 1208.16 and 1208.18.

         An asylum officer referred the couple's case to an immigration judge. The government then began removal proceedings against the couple under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(1)(B) for overstaying their visas. The couple conceded the charge of removability but contended that Cojocari was eligible for asylum and related relief because he would likely face political persecution and torture upon his return to Moldova.

         Cojocari testified at a series of immigration court hearings held on November 26, 2013; September 23, 2014; and November 5, 2014. He supported his testimony with extensive documentation, including numerous hospital and arrest records and an AMN membership card (proof of his political activity, which the immigration judge credited). Cojocari also offered a report and testimony by Professor Igor Kotler, an historian whom the immigration judge recognized as an expert on country conditions in Moldova.

         The immigration judge denied Cojocari's application for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the CAT, and she ordered Cojocari and Veronica removed to Moldova. In reaching her decision, the judge found that (1) Cojocari's testimony was not credible, and (2) he provided insufficient corroborating evidence to "meet his burden of proof to show that the central aspects of his claim are true." The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed the couple's appeal in a decision generally agreeing with the immigration judge's reasoning. The couple then sought review in this court.

         II. Analysis

         A. Legal Framework

         1. The REAL ID Act

         The Secretary of Homeland Security or the Attorney General may grant asylum to an alien who qualifies as a "refugee." 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(A). Refugees are people who are unable or unwilling to return to their native countries because of "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social ...

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