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Feldman v. Hoffman

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

December 19, 2014

Lisa B. Feldman, Appellant
v.
Walter I. Hoffman, M.D

Argued October 6, 2014

Page 822

Appealed from No. 2013-03286. Common Pleas Court of the County of Montgomery. Tilson, J.

Wayne A. Ely, Penndel, for appellant.

Sharon R. Weisbein, Norristown, for appellee.

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge, HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge (P.), HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Page 823

BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge

Lisa Feldman (Feldman) appeals from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County (trial court) which dismissed her Complaint, with prejudice, against Walter Hoffman, M.D., (Dr. Hoffman), the Coroner of Montgomery County.[1]

Feldman's son, age 27, Evan Klausen (Decedent), took his life on September 9, 2011. Decedent left a last letter on his dining room table (Suicide Letter). Dr. Hoffman took possession of Decedent's body following his death and also took possession of the original Suicide Letter which he used for his investigation. On September 14, 2011, Dr. Hoffman ruled Decedent's death a suicide. Dr. Hoffman returned Decedent's personal property, including his wallet and cell phone, to Feldman but he did not return the original Suicide Letter.

Feldman asked Dr. Hoffman to return the original Suicide Letter. Dr. Hoffman stated that it was not his policy to release documents of this kind. He advised Feldman that if she wanted the Suicide Letter she would have to file a petition in Orphans' Court and obtain a decree ordering him to hand it over.

Feldman engaged counsel and filed the petition. The Orphans' Court ordered Dr. Hoffman to Show Cause why he should not be required to turn the original Suicide Letter over to Feldman. After he received the Rule to Show Cause, Dr. Hoffman contacted Feldman's attorneys and told them that she would have to come personally to pick it up and prove her identity. When Feldman arrived at Dr. Hoffman's Office, she was given the original Suicide Letter. Dr. Hoffman never responded to the Rule to Show Cause.

Feldman's Complaint

On February 14, 2013, Feldman filed a two-count complaint against Dr. Hoffman for (1) conversion; and (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Feldman alleged that Decedent " left a [Suicide Letter] addressed to Plaintiff [Feldman]." Complaint, Paragraph 11 at 2; Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 9a. She alleged that Dr. Hoffman refused to deliver the original Suicide Letter to her " knowing that the [Suicide Letter] was not his property and despite the fact that there was no reason to maintain possession of it." Complaint at Paragraph 2; R.R. at 8a. Plaintiff averred that Dr. Hoffman had no legal or factual justification for his intentional and deliberate refusal to release the Suicide Letter. Complaint at Paragraph 23; R.R. at 10a. She alleged that Dr. Hoffman had no basis to retain the original Suicide Letter because no " investigation" was necessary after Dr. Hoffman issued the Death Certificate, within days of Decedent's death, and without completing an autopsy. Complaint at Paragraph 35; R.R. at 12a. Feldman alleged that the provisions of the Second Class County Code commonly referred to as the " Coroner's Act[2]" required Dr. Hoffman to turn the original Suicide Letter over to her upon request and that Dr.

Page 824

Hoffman had " no basis for refusing to do so." Complaint at Paragraph 38; R.R. at 12a.

Feldman asserted that Hoffman's actions " were intentional, outrageous or wanton behavior calculated to bring about [Feldman's] emotional distress." Complaint at Paragraph 41; R.R. at 13a.

She also asserted that Dr. Hoffman committed the tort of conversion by " wrongfully taking possession of the property of [Feldman] and refusing to return it." Complaint at Paragraph 44; R.R. at 13a.

The Complaint contained an ad damnum clause for damages and a request for punitive damages.

Hoffman's Preliminary Objections

On March 5, 2013, Dr. Hoffman filed preliminary objections. He argued that Feldman's Complaint should be dismissed because: (1) he is entitled to " absolute immunity" as a " high-ranking public official; " and (2) Feldman failed to plead the necessary elements of conversion and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[3]

With respect to immunity, Dr. Hoffman asserted that he is a " high-ranking public official." He argued that as a " high-ranking public official" he enjoys absolute immunity even when willful misconduct is alleged. He argued that the doctrine of high public official immunity extends to intentional torts, including intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Dr. Hoffman asserted the Complaint alleged no facts that he acted outside the scope of his duties as the Montgomery County Coroner, and all of the allegedly actionable behavior was made in the course and scope of his duties. He contended that he had a statutory duty under the Coroner's Act to investigate the facts and circumstances of Decedent's death and the original Suicide Letter was an obvious part of his investigation. The Coroner's Act provides that after an investigation is completed, the coroner must hold all personal effects and property of the deceased for one year, unless claimed by an established legal representative of the deceased. The Complaint contained no allegation that Feldman had established that she was Decedent's legal representative. Dr. Hoffman asserted that, taking the facts in the Complaint as true, Feldman pled facts which established that he was acting within the scope of his employment as the Montgomery County Coroner and, therefore, he is entitled to absolute immunity.

In support of his demurrer, Dr. Hoffman argued that Feldman failed to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.[4] He contended that at most, the Complaint averred a general dissatisfaction with the way he carried out his discretionary duties as the Montgomery County Coroner and that she was not given the Suicide Letter within a time-frame she deemed appropriate. Dr. Hoffman argued the allegations of the Complaint did not state facts which made a showing of the extreme and outrageous conduct necessary to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Dr. Hoffman further argued that Feldman

Page 825

failed to state a claim for conversion.[5] First, he contended that she inaccurately stated in the Complaint that the Suicide Letter was " her property" when, in fact, it was not. Dr. Hoffman attached a copy of the Suicide Letter as " Exhibit B" and noted that it " was not addressed to [Feldman]," but was addressed: " To everyone in my life" and that " the first person who was listed was 'Cari.'" Hoffman's Preliminary Objections, Paragraph 35 at 6; R.R. at 22a. Dr. Hoffman also asserted that the Complaint failed to establish that he " wrongfully" took possession of or refused to return the Suicide Letter.

Feldman's Preliminary Objections to Hoffman's Preliminary Objections

Feldman filed preliminary objections to the preliminary objections of Dr. Hoffman. Feldman alleged that Dr. Hoffman's preliminary objections improperly raised the affirmative defense of immunity. She argued that immunity is an affirmative defense that must be raised in New Matter, not in preliminary objections. Pa.R.C.P. No. 1030(a).

She also contended that Dr. Hoffman erroneously relied on matters outside the Complaint, namely the Suicide Letter, which was not attached to the Complaint, which was in violation of Pa.R.C.P. No. 1028(a)(4).

Feldman asserted that Dr. Hoffman's preliminary objections improperly attempted to summarily resolve two key issues that require a full factual record to properly determine: (1) Dr. Hoffman's status as high public official; and (2) Feldman's possessory right to the Suicide Letter. Feldman requested that Dr. Hoffman's preliminary objections be stricken and that he be ordered to answer the Complaint.

Trial Court's Order

On September 18, 2013, the trial court sustained Dr. Hoffman's preliminary objections and dismissed Feldman's Complaint with prejudice. The trial court concluded that it was apparent from the face of the Complaint that high official immunity applied. The trial court further found that, in any event, Feldman's Complaint was insufficient to withstand a demurrer. On the issue of conversion, Feldman admitted that she received the original Suicide Letter after three months, which was timely and lawful and in the course and scope of Dr. Hoffman's duties.[6] The trial court further found that the Letter " was not addressed solely to [Feldman] but to a number of people, and [Feldman] did not clearly establish that [Decedent's] original note was her property so as to deprive her of the right to its use." Trial Court Opinion, December 26, 2013, at 4. Finally, the trial court found no conduct in the Complaint that supported Feldman's claim for

Page 826

intentional infliction of emotional distress or any reckless conduct as to give rise to a claim for punitive damages.

I.

On appeal[7], Feldman first argues that the trial court erred because it was not clear from the face of her Complaint that Dr. Hoffman was entitled to absolute high public official immunity. She argues that " no case found by appellant [Feldman] has determined whether a coroner such as Defendant [Dr. Hoffman] is ... entitled to 'high official' immunity, and a full record should have been developed before this issue is ruled upon so that the matter can properly be reviewed by this [the Commonwealth] Court." Feldman's Brief at 15.

High Official Immunity

The common law doctrine of " high official immunity" insulates " high-ranking public officials" from all statements made and acts taken in the course of their official duties. Matson v. Margiotti, 371 Pa. 188, 88 A.2d 892, 895 (Pa. 1952); Holt v. Northwest Pennsylvania Training Partnership Consortium, Inc., 694 A.2d 1134 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997).[8]

The public interest does not demand that all public officials be entitled to absolute privilege, but only that " high-ranking officers" be so protected. Montgomery v. City of Philadelphia, 392 Pa. 178, 140 A.2d 100, 104 (Pa. 1958).

">In Lindner v. Mollan, 544 Pa. 487, 677 A.2d 1194 (Pa. 1996), our Supreme Court explained absolute high official immunity, stating:

[T]he doctrine of absolute privilege for high public officials, as its name implies, is unlimited and exempts a high public official from all civil suits for damages arising out of false defamatory statements and even from statements or actions motivated by malice, provided the statements are made or the actions are taken in the course of the official's duties or powers ...

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