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Lisa B. Feldman v. Walter I. Hoffman

January 23, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Buckwalter, S.J.


Currently pending before the Court is Defendant Walter I. Hoffman, M.D.'s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Lisa Feldman's Second Amended Complaint. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted.


This suit follows the tragic suicide of Plaintiff's son, Evan Klausen. At issue is the suicide note left by Evan and whether Defendant Hoffman improperly withheld the note from Ms. Feldman while conducting an investigation into the circumstances of the death. The facts, as set forth in the Second Amended Complaint, are as follows.*fn1

Evan Klausen took his own life on September 9, 2011. (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 18.) Before doing so, he left a suicide note addressed to (among others) his mother, Plaintiff Lisa Feldman. (Id.; Defs.' Mot. Dismiss, Ex. 2, Evan Klausen's Suicide Note.) This letter was left in Evan's home on his dining room table and was found after his death. (Second Am. Compl. ¶

20.) Defendant Walter Hofman, Coroner for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, took possession of Evan's body and the note following his death. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 23.) Following an examination, Dr. Hofman ruled that Evan's death was a suicide and issued a death certificate to that effect on September 14, 2011. (Id. ¶ 24.) On the same day, Dr. Hofman returned Evan's personal property to Ms. Feldman, including Evan's wallet and cellular telephone. (Id. ¶ 25.) Ms. Feldman requested that Dr. Hofman return the suicide note, as well. (Id. ¶ 26.) Dr. Hofman refused, telling Ms. Feldman it was his "policy" not to release a letter of this kind. (Id. ¶ 28.) When asked by Ms. Feldman when he planned on returning the letter to her, Dr. Hofman replied "never." (Id. ¶ 30.) Ms. Feldman informed Dr. Hofman that he was causing her immeasurable emotional distress by withholding the letter, given that it contained Evan's last words to her. (Id. ¶ 32.)

Ms. Feldman obtained legal counsel and brought suit in the Orphans Court division of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. (Id. ¶ 35.) On October 24, 2011, the court issued a preliminary decree ordering Dr. Hofman to show cause as to why he should not be required to turn the note over to Ms. Feldman. (Id.) The decision of the Court of Common Pleas required Dr. Hofman to respond by December 2, 2011. (Id. ¶ 36.) After being served with notice of the ruling, Dr. Hofman contacted Ms. Feldman's attorneys and informed them that Ms. Feldman could come and personally pick up the letter from the Coroner's office. (Id. ¶ 38.) Ms. Feldman did so. (Id. ¶ 39.)

Ms. Feldman brought the instant case on July 19, 2012, bringing four counts against Dr. Hofman for his retention of the suicide note: (1) violation of procedural due process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violation of substantive due process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (4) conversion. After Ms. Feldman filed two different amended complaints, Dr, Hoffman filed the instant Motion to Dismiss on November 29, 2012. Ms. Feldman filed a response in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss on December 17. The Court now considers the merits of the motion.


Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P.12(b)(6); see also Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recognized that "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555. Following these basic dictates, the Supreme Court, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), subsequently defined a two-pronged approach to a court's review of a motion to dismiss. "First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678. Thus, although "Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era . . . it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 678--79. Second, the Supreme Court emphasized that "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. at 679. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will, as the Court of Appeals observed, be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. A complaint does not show an entitlement to relief when the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct. Id.; see also Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232-34 (3d Cir. 2008) (holding that: (1) factual allegations of complaint must provide notice to defendant; (2) complaint must allege facts suggestive of the proscribed conduct; and (3) the complaint's "'factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level'") (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555)).

Notwithstanding these new dictates, the basic tenets of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review have remained static. Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., No. Civ.A.08-626, 2008 WL 2779079, at *2 (W.D. Pa. July 15, 2008). The general rules of pleading still require only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and need not contain detailed factual allegations. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233. Further, the court must "accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Finally, the court must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Pinkerton v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002).


A. Section 1983 Claims

Ms. Feldman brings claims under ยง 1983 for violations of procedural and substantive due process for the two months Dr. Hofman withheld the suicide note from her. Dr. Hofman responds that he ...

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