Judge rules Montco coroner didn't violate due process rights in not turning over son's suicide note to mother

By Jon Campisi | Jan 25, 2013

A federal judge in Philadelphia has dismissed a lawsuit against Montgomery County’s coroner by the mother of a suicide victim who claimed that the defendant improperly withheld the victim’s suicide note from the plaintiff during the course of the investigation into the man’s untimely death.

In a Jan. 23 memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted the motion to dismiss that had been filed by lawyers representing Walter I. Hofman.

Hofman, the coroner for Montgomery County, which neighbors Philadelphia, was being sued by Lisa Feldman, whose son, Evan Klausen, took his own life in early September 2011, the record shows.

Before he killed himself, Klausen left behind a suicide note addressed to his mother.

Hofman ended up taking possession of Klausen’s body and the note, eventually ruling the man’s death a suicide and issuing a death certificate to that effect on Sept. 14, 2011.

On the same day as his ruling, the record shows, Hofman returned to Feldman her son’s personal belongings, although he turned down a request by Feldman to return the suicide note, telling Feldman that it was his policy not to release a “letter of this kind,” the judicial memorandum states.

When informed by Hofman that he would never release the note, Feldman told the coroner that he was causing her “immeasurable emotional distress by withholding the letter, given that it contained Evan’s last words to her,” according to the memorandum.

Feldman soon brought suit against Hofman at the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, with the court ordering Hofman to show cause as to why he should not turn over the suicide note to Feldman.

After being informed of the court’s order, Hofman contacted Feldman’s attorneys and informed them that Feldman could come and personally pick up the suicide note from the Coroner’s Office, the memorandum states.

Nevertheless, Feldman ended up filing a federal action against Hofman asserting federal due process violation claims, as well as state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and conversion.

After Feldman filed two different amended complaints, Hofman filed his motion to dismiss on Nov. 29, 2012, the record shows.

Feldman filed a response in opposition to the motion.

In his ruling, Buckwalter determined that Hofman is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Feldman’s Section 1983 civil rights claims asserting violations of procedural and substantive due process for the two months during which Hofman withheld the suicide note from the plaintiff.

Hofman had argued that Feldman could not demonstrate a violation of either procedural or substantive due process because there was no property right under the U.S. Constitution that was violated through his actions.

The coroner also contended that because Feldman’s son’s suicide note was addressed to and spoke to multiple persons and not just Feldman, the plaintiff did not have a constitutional right to the letter such that her due process was violated.

“While we pass no judgment on whether Dr. Hofman’s withholding of the letter was ethical or moral under the circumstances, it is beyond question that his actions were not so blatant as to put them outside the coverage of qualified immunity,” Buckwalter wrote.

The judge also refused to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the two remaining state law claims because the case is “relatively young and has not advanced past the pleadings stage.”

“There is nothing about the facts of this case which suggest judicial economy or comity would be negatively affected, nor is there any reason to believe pursuing the claims in state court would be inconvenient or unfair to either party.”

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