287 F.3d 786 (9th Cir. 2001) (9th Cir. 2001), 00-55504, Newman v. Sathyavaglswaran

Docket Nº:00-55504
Citation:287 F.3d 786
Party Name:Newman v. Sathyavaglswaran
Case Date:April 16, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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287 F.3d 786 (9th Cir. 2001)

Robert NEWMAN, as father and next of kin of Richard A. Newman and Barbara Obarski as mother and next of kin of Kenneth S. Obarski, individually and on behalf of all other similarly situated individuals, Plaintiffs-Appellants,


L. SATHYAVAGLSWARAN, M.D., in his official capacity as Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner of the County of Los Angeles; Anthony T. Hernandez, in his official capacity; County of Los Angeles, Department of the Coroner, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 00-55504.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

April 16, 2001

Argued and Submitted Oct. 17, 2001.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Bill Colovos, Southgate, MI, for the plaintiffs-appellants.

Cheryl A. Orr, Musick, Peeler & Garrett LLP, Los Angeles, California; Aaron M. Peck, Arter & Hadden LLP, Los Angeles, CA, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; J. Spencer Letts, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-99-10751-JSL.

Before: BROWNING, FERNANDEZ and FISHER, Circuit Judges.

FISHER, Circuit Judge.

Parents, whose deceased children's corneas were removed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's office without notice or consent, brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging a taking of their property without due process of law. The complaint was dismissed by the district court for a failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. We must decide whether the longstanding recognition in the law of California, paralleled by our national common law, that next of kin have the exclusive right to possess the bodies of their deceased family members creates a property interest, the deprivation of which must be accorded due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. We hold that it does. The parents were not required to exhaust post deprivation procedures prior to bringing this suit. Thus, we hold that they properly stated a claim under § 1983.


In reviewing the district court's dismissal of the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), "we must 'take as true all allegations of material fact stated in the complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.' " Schneider v. California Dep't of Corr., 151 F.3d 1194, 1196 (9th Cir. 1998) (quoting Warshaw v. Xoma Corp., 74 F.3d 955, 957 (9th Cir. 1996)). Robert Newman and Barbara Obarski (the parents) each had children, Richard Newman and Kenneth Obarski respectively, who died in Los Angeles County in October 1997. Following their deaths, the Office of the Coroner for the County of Los Angeles (the coroner) obtained possession of the bodies of the children and, under procedures adopted pursuant to California Government Code § 27491.47 as it then existed, 1 removed the corneas from those bodies without the knowledge of the parents and without an attempt to notify them and request consent. The parents became aware of the coroner's actions in September 1999 and subsequently filed this § 1983 action alleging a deprivation of their property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. 2

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The coroner filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that the parents could not have a property interest in their deceased children's corneas. The coroner also argued that to the extent the parents did have due process rights, they were required to exhaust state post-deprivation remedies prior to bringing suit. The district court granted the motion to dismiss prior to a scheduled hearing and without a written opinion explaining the basis for the dismissal. We review de novo, Schneider, 151 F.3d at 1196, to assess whether "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff[s] can prove no set of facts in support of [their] claim which would entitle[them] to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957).


The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from "depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. At the threshold, a claim under § 1983 for an unconstitutional deprivation of property must show (1) a deprivation (2) of property (3) under color of state law. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 536-37, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981), overruled on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 106 S.Ct. 662, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986). If these elements are met, the question becomes whether the state afforded constitutionally adequate process for the deprivation. Id. at 537, 101 S.Ct. 1908. Here, it is uncontested that the coroner's action was a deprivation under color of state law. The coroner argues, however, that the dismissal of the parents' complaint was proper because they could not have a property interest in their children's corneas.

Since Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 72 S.Ct. 205, 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952), the Supreme Court repeatedly has affirmed that "the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others," Union Pacific Ry. Co. v. Botsford, 141 U.S. 250, 251, 11 S.Ct. 1000, 35 L.Ed. 734 (1891), is "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people," Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105, 54 S.Ct. 330, 78 L.Ed. 674 (1934), overruled in part, Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 84 S.Ct. 1489, 12 L.Ed.2d 653 (1964), as to be ranked as one of the fundamental liberties protected by the "substantive" component of the Due Process Clause. See Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 772, 86 S.Ct. 1826, 16 L.Ed.2d 908 (1966) ("The integrity of an individual's person is a cherished value of our society."); Rochin, 342 U.S. at 174, 72 S.Ct. 205 (describing unauthorized physical invasions of the body as "offensive to human dignity"). This liberty, the Court has "strongly suggested," extends to the personal decisions about "how to best protect dignity and independence at the end of life." Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 716, 720, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772 (1997); Cruzan v. Missouri Dep't of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 302, 305, 110 S.Ct. 2841, 111 L.Ed.2d 224 (1990) (Brennan, J. dissenting) (expressing the view that a right "to choose to die with dignity" flows from "[t]he right ... to determine what shall be done with one's own body, [which]is deeply rooted in this Nation's traditions ... and is securely grounded in the earliest common law"). The Court has not had occasion to address whether the rights of possession and control of one's own body, the most "sacred" and "carefully guarded" of all rights in the common law, Botsford, 141 U.S. at 251, 11 S.Ct. 1000, are property interests protected by the Due Process Clause. Nor has it addressed what Due Process protections are applicable to the

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rights of next of kin to possess and control the bodies of their deceased relatives.

"[T]he property interests protected by procedural due process extend well beyond actual ownership of real estate, chattels, or money." Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 571-72, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). 3 "The Fourteenth Amendment's procedural protection of property is a safeguard of the security of interests that a person has already acquired[.]" Id. at 576, 92 S.Ct. 2701. 4 These property interests "are not created by the Constitution[,] ... they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law[.]" Id. at 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701. Thus, the first step of our analysis is to analyze the history of rules and understandings of our nation with respect to the possession and protection of the bodies of the dead.

A. History of Common Law Interests in Dead Bodies

Duties to protect the dignity of the human body after its death are deeply rooted in our nation's history. In a valuable history of the subject, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island recounted:

By the civil law of ancient Rome, the charge of burial was first upon the person to whom it was delegated by the deceased; second, upon the scripti haeredes (to whom the property was given), and if none, then upon the haeredes legitimi or cognati in order.... The heirs might be compelled to comply with the provisions of the will in regard to burial. And the Pontifical College had the power of providing for the burial of those who had no place of burial in their own right.

Pierce v. Proprietors of Swan Point Cemetery, 10 R.I. 227, 235-36, 1872 WL 3575 (1872) (citations omitted).

In 17th century England, and in much of Europe, duties to bury the dead and protect the dignified disposition of the body, described as flowing from a "right of burial, ... a person's right to be buried," id. at 238-39; accord In re Johnsons's Estate, 169 Misc. 215, 7 N.Y.S.2d 81, 84 (N.Y.Surr.Ct.1938) (explaining that in 17th century England, "[a] man had a right to the decent interment of his own body in expectation of the day of resurrection"), 5

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were borne primarily by churches, which had a duty to bury the bodies of those residing in their parishes. Pierce, 10 R.I. at 236. These duties, and the explanation of their genesis in the rights of the dead, carried over into New England colonial practice where "[i]n many parts ... the parish system prevailed, and every family was considered to have a right of burial in the churchyard of the parish in which they lived." Id. at 235.

The Roman practice of including duties to protect the body of the dead in civil law had no parallel in the early English common law because burials were matters of ecclesiastical cognizance. Id. Thus, Blackstone explained that "though the heir has a property [interest] in the...

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