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Buerhle v. Hahn

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 14, 2014

KATHY J. BUERHLE, Plaintiff.
v.
HAHN, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

ANITA B. BRODY, J.

Plaintiff Kathy J. Buerhle (“Buerhle”), Administratrix of the Estate of Sean Buerhle, brings suit against Defendants, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers, Trooper Hahn and Trooper John Doe (collectively, the “Troopers”) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a deprivation of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, Buerhle brings a wrongful death claim, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301, and a survival claim, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8302. I exercise federal question jurisdiction over Buerhle’s § 1983 claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over Buerhle’s state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Currently before me is Trooper Hahn’s motion to dismiss. As tragic as the facts of this case may be, I am required under the law to grant Trooper Hahn’s motion to dismiss.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

At the age of 22 years old, Sean Buerhle (“Sean”) took his own life. Plaintiff Kathy J. Buerhle is Sean’s mother and the administratrix of his estate. Prior to his suicide, Sean had a history of mental health issues, including anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. Sean was under the care of a mental health professional and was taking Cymbalta, a prescription drug intended for the treatment of major depression disorders. Sean had a family history of depression and suicide. Both Sean’s father and cousin had committed suicide. At the time of his death, Sean was a student at Drexel University and an employee of Weis Supermarket (“Weis”). He was living with his mother, Buerhle, and his stepfather.

On August 8, 2011, Sean left home to go to work the midnight shift at Weis. On August 9, 2011, Sean did not return home after work. Buerhle called Weis and learned that Sean never arrived at work. Buerhle became concerned for Sean’s safety. She called his cellphone, but Sean did not answer. Additionally, Buerhle contacted Sean’s friends, but none of them had seen him. Sean’s stepfather then contacted the local State Police Department to file a missing person’s report.

On the night of August 9, 2011, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers, Defendants Trooper Hahn and Trooper John Doe arrived at Buerhle’s house to investigate Sean’s disappearance. Buerhle informed the Troopers of Sean’s mental health issues, his family history of depression and suicide, and that Sean’s entire bottle of Cymbalta was missing. The Troopers refused to ping Sean’s cellphone, which is a method whereby a cellphone service provider can pinpoint a subscriber’s last known location by determining the closest cellphone tower that was accessed by the subscriber’s cellphone. The Troopers provided Buerhle with the case number K03-1796778, and led Buerhle to believe that they had properly reported and submitted a missing person’s report.

Following her discussion with the Troopers, Buerhle investigated Sean’s bank, cellphone, and computer records, which reflected that Sean had not withdrawn any money or used his cellphone after disappearing. Buerhle also contacted all local hospitals and posted numerous missing person signs in her neighborhood.

On August 11, 2011, Buerhle went to the local State Police Department to obtain a copy of Sean’s missing person report in order to notify local media about her son’s disappearance. Buerhle gave the station dispatcher the case number provided by the Troopers. The dispatcher informed Buerhle that that the Pennsylvania State Police Department had no information in its system associated with case number K03-1796778. A trooper then interviewed Buerhle and filed a missing person’s report. Shortly after leaving the station, Buerhle went to the Upper Perkiomen Police Station and dropped off missing person fliers.

On the morning of August 12, 2011, various members of the Pennsylvania State Police Department arrived at Buerhle’s home to search Sean’s room, and created a search team to locate Sean. Around 11:30 p.m. on August 12, 2011, members of the search team notified Buerhle that they found Sean’s body in the woods with a suicide note. Members of the team informed Buerhle that they located Sean’s body after pinging his cellphone to ascertain his last known location and then using K-9 units to ascertain his exact location. After performing an autopsy, the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office concluded that Sean committed suicide sometime between the night of August 11th and the early morning of August 12th.

The Pennsylvania State Police Department has a protocol known as the Missing Endangered Person Advisory System (“MEPAS”), which rapidly disseminates information about a missing person to the public and other law enforcement agencies. Sean’s disappearance met the criteria under MEPAS for issuing a missing endangered person alert. Despite this, the Troopers failed to request an issuance of a MEPAS alert, and failed to properly file a missing person’s report.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

To survive dismissal, a complaint must allege facts sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rather, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

“As a general matter, a district court ruling on a motion to dismiss may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings. However, an exception to the general rule is that a document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint may be considered . . . .” In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997) (emphasis omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, a court may “consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.” Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994). Further, “a court may consider an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as ...


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