Feldman v. Hoffman, No. 400 C.D. 2014

CourtCommonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtOPINION BY Judge McGINLEY.
Citation107 A.3d 821
PartiesLisa B. FELDMAN, Appellant v. Walter I. HOFFMAN, M.D.
Decision Date19 December 2014
Docket NumberNo. 400 C.D. 2014

107 A.3d 821

Lisa B. FELDMAN, Appellant
v.
Walter I. HOFFMAN, M.D.

No. 400 C.D. 2014

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued Oct. 6, 2014.
Decided Dec. 19, 2014.


107 A.3d 822

Wayne A. Ely, Penndel, for appellant.

107 A.3d 823

Sharon R. Weisbein, Norristown, for appellee.

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

Opinion

OPINION BY Judge McGINLEY.

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 Act2 required Dr. Hoffman to turn the original Suicide Letter over to her upon request and that Dr.

107 A.3d 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

107 A.3d 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

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31 practice notes
  • Mallory v. Stanitis, No. 365 C.D. 2014
    • United States
    • Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
    • 5 Mayo 2015
    ...our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Luke v. Cataldi, 932 A.2d 45, 49 n.3 (Pa. 2007); Feldman v. Hoffman, 107 A.3d 821, 826 n.7 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014). For the purpose of determining the legal sufficiency of a complaint, we must accept the facts alleged and all ......
  • Williams v. Lawrence Cnty. Career & Technical Ctr., Civil Action No. 17-620
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • 26 Octubre 2017
    ...defendants must (1) be "high public officials" who (2) were acting in the course of their official duties. Feldman v. Hoffman,Page 26 107 A.3d 821, 826-27 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014). Whether an individual is a "high public official" must be determined on a case-by-case basis, id., and given the ......
  • Firearm Owners Against Crime v. City of Harrisburg, No. 1434 C.D. 2018
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court
    • 12 Septiembre 2019
    ...seeking to strike that defense from the City Defendants' Preliminary Objections, citing this Court's decision in Feldman v. Hoffman , 107 A.3d 821 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014), appeal denied , 632 Pa. 695, 121 A.3d 497 (2015). In Feldman , we observed that, as a technical matter, the Pennsylvania Rul......
  • William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Dep't of Educ., No. 587 M.D. 2014
    • United States
    • Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
    • 26 Agosto 2020
    ...Lindner v. Mollan , 544 Pa. 487, 677 A.2d 1194, 1198 (1996) (summarizing cases where exception has been applied), and Feldman v. Hoffman , 107 A.3d 821 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014) (summarizing same). Whether the common law exception applies is determined on a case-by-case basis. Lindner , 677 A.2d a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
34 cases
  • Mallory v. Stanitis, 365 C.D. 2014
    • United States
    • Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
    • 5 Mayo 2015
    ...our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Luke v. Cataldi, 932 A.2d 45, 49 n.3 (Pa. 2007); Feldman v. Hoffman, 107 A.3d 821, 826 n.7 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014). For the purpose of determining the legal sufficiency of a complaint, we must accept the facts alleged and all ......
  • Firearm Owners Against Crime v. City of Harrisburg, 1434 C.D. 2018
    • United States
    • Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
    • 12 Septiembre 2019
    ...seeking to strike that defense from the City Defendants' Preliminary Objections, citing this Court's decision in Feldman v. Hoffman , 107 A.3d 821 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014), appeal denied , 632 Pa. 695, 121 A.3d 497 (2015). In Feldman , we observed that, as a technical matter, the Pennsylvania Rul......
  • Williams v. Lawrence Cnty. Career & Technical Ctr., Civil Action No. 17-620
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • 26 Octubre 2017
    ...defendants must (1) be "high public officials" who (2) were acting in the course of their official duties. Feldman v. Hoffman,Page 26 107 A.3d 821, 826-27 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014). Whether an individual is a "high public official" must be determined on a case-by-case basis, id., and given the ......
  • William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Dep't of Educ., 587 M.D. 2014
    • United States
    • Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
    • 26 Agosto 2020
    ...Lindner v. Mollan , 544 Pa. 487, 677 A.2d 1194, 1198 (1996) (summarizing cases where exception has been applied), and Feldman v. Hoffman , 107 A.3d 821 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014) (summarizing same). Whether the common law exception applies is determined on a case-by-case basis. Lindner , 677 A.2d a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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