GENESS v. COUNTY OF FAYETTE et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER re 76 Second MOTION to Amend/Correct 1 Complaint filed by CRAIG A. GENESS. See accompanying Order filed at 92 . Signed by Judge Mark A. Kearney on 3/21/2017. (ept)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
CRAIG A. GENESS
JASON COX, et al.
: CIVIL ACTION
: NO. 16-876
March 21, 2017
A mentally impaired man alleges state actors deprived him of constitutional rights
resulting in years of custody in a state jail based on several orders delaying a decision on whether
he was competent to defend criminal charges. Following discovery, he now moves to amend his
complaint to sue the Commonwealth under the Americans with Disabilities Act arguing state
court judges repeatedly issued orders retaining him in custody based on the possibility of him
regaining competency to stand trial when medical evidence demonstrated a permanent disability.
He also argues the state court judges failed to hear or rule on his four habeas corpus petitions
and the court’s later nolle prosequi Order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. While
the Supreme Court removed the Commonwealth’s immunity from suit over a decade ago, the
mentally impaired plaintiff still cannot sue the Commonwealth under this Act challenging state
court orders and procedures as violating his civil rights as a disabled man. He does not argue the
state failed to provide physical accommodations or proper professional assistance to him as a
disabled defendant; rather, he asks us to hold a disabled person can state a claim under the
Americans with Disabilities Act because state court judges’ rulings and procedures adversely
affected him. We find no basis for this requested unprecedented expansion of disabilities law
effectively obviating the Rooker-Feldman doctrine when the defendant is disabled.
The 2006 conduct leading to the charges in state court.
Craig Geness is mentally impaired since birth. He resided at a personal care home where
on October 27, 2006, Ronald Fiffak, another resident fell off the porch. Mr. Fiffak’s wife told
treating medical personnel her husband fell from the porch steps. The initial police report also
reports Mr. Fiffak fell from the porch.
On November 16, 2006, Detective Jason Cox interviewed the owner of the personal care
home. The owner of the personal care home told Detective Cox he heard Mr. Geness yell “shut
up” and slam the door right before Mr. Fiffak fell. Police detectives began investigating Mr.
On or about November 16, 2006, the owner involuntarily committed Mr. Geness to
On November 16, 2006, Detective Cox interviewed Mr. Geness about Mr. Fiffak’s fall in
a psychiatric ward at Highlands Hospital without an attorney present. Allegedly based on this
interview, he charged Mr. Geness with aggravated assault and placed him in custody. Mr. Fiffak
died on November 17, 2006. On November 20, 2006, Detective Cox charged Mr. Geness with
homicide and incarcerated him in Fayette County Prison.
Mr. Geness’ long delayed resolution in the state court.
Mr. Geness remained in custody until 2015 without a trial. On June 18, 2007, Fayette
County Judge Wagner found Mr. Geness incompetent to stand trial and committed him to
Mayview State Hospital for no more than 60 days to evaluate Mr. Geness’ fitness to stand trial.
On August 21, 2007, Fayette County Judge Warman found Mr. Geness incompetent to
stand trial and directed his attorney to move for trial when Mr. Geness is found competent.
On September 25, 2007, Mayview conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Mr. Geness and
deemed Mr. Geness incompetent to stand trial.
Mayview opined Mr. Geness may be
“decompensating.” After this Mayview evaluation, the Commonwealth transferred Mr. Geness
back to Fayette County Prison.
Mr. Geness remained in Fayette County Prison with no legal action on his case until
November 29, 2010 when Judge Wagner ordered Mr. Geness transferred from prison to Torrance
State Hospital for a period of 90 days to determine Mr. Geness’ competency to stand trial and the
likelihood Mr. Geness will ever be competent to stand trial. Inexplicably, the parties took no
action based on Judge Wagner’s November 29, 2010 Order for ten months.
On August 17, 2011, Fayette County Judge Solomon ordered the parties to determine if
Mr. Geness is then competent to function in society. Mr. Geness underwent a forensic
psychiatric assessment at Fayette County Prison on or about September 4, 2011. On or about
September 21, 2011, Judge Wagner found Mr. Geness not competent to stand trial and
involuntarily committed Mr. Geness to a Long Term Structured Residence (“LTSR”). LTSR
prohibits contact with the general public, requires an ankle monitor, and Mr. Geness is to be
returned to Fayette County Prison upon completing his therapeutic program or found competent
to stand trial.
During his period in custody, Mr. Geness filed four petitions for habeas corpus relief.
The Fayette County Court of Common Pleas never held a hearing or ruled on Mr. Geness’
Sometime before June 18, 2014, Mr. Geness’ new pro bono defense counsel requested
discovery from the Fayette County District Attorney.
On May 27, 2015, Mr. Geness’ new
lawyer moved to compel discovery. On June 2, 2015, Judge Leskinen ordered the District
Attorney and Public Defender provide Mr. Geness with all psychiatric and psychological reports
within ten days; on June 10, 2015, Judge Wagner granted Mr. Geness’ motion to compel
discovery and ordered the District Attorney to provide all discovery to Mr. Geness by June 30,
2015. On June 17, 2015, Judge Wagner ordered the District Attorney to provide information on
all eyewitnesses within ten days.
On December 10, 2015, Fayette County Judge Leskinen granted Fayette County’s request
to nolle prosequi all charges against Mr. Geness.
Mr. Geness seeks federal civil rights remedies.
On June 17, 2016, Mr. Geness sued Fayette County in this Court for violating his rights
under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Act”) by “depriving him of normal benefits of
criminal procedure and due process of law.”1 On November 10, 2016, Mr. Geness voluntarily
dismissed his claims against Fayette County.2 On December 2, 2016, we entered the scheduling
Order closing discovery on March 3, 2017.3
On March 6, 2017, Mr. Geness moved to amend his complaint to dismiss the bankrupt
personal care owner and now sue the Commonwealth. Mr. Geness cites “recently discovered
case law” supporting an Americans with Disabilities Act claim against the Commonwealth of
Mr. Geness’ proposed claim is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through the Fayette
County Court of Common Pleas, violated the Act because the “Commonwealth’s Judges
repeatedly issued orders based on the possibility of Plaintiff regaining competency to stand trial
when medical evidence clearly demonstrated that Plaintiff’s disability was permanent and not
treatable.” Mr. Geness also alleges Fayette County Court of Common Pleas’ failure to hear or
rule on his four habeas corpus petitions and the court’s nolle prosequi order as violating the Act.
Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15, we consider factors “such as undue delay, bad faith, or dilatory
motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously
allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, futility
of amendment, etc.- the leave sought should, as the rules require, be ‘freely given.’”5 The two
key factors we consider for Mr. Geness’ motion are undue delay and futility.
Mr. Geness sued on June 17, 2016 and withdrew his Act claim against the County of
Fayette on November 10, 2016. Eight months after filing his complaint and four months after
withdrawing his Act claim, Mr. Geness moves to amend based on “recently discovered case
law.” Mr. Geness’ counsel is referring to his discovery of a nearly thirteen year old Supreme
Court case Tennessee v. Lane.6
Mr. Geness does not explain how this 2004 Supreme Court precedent is “recently
discovered.” His proposed factual allegations in his amended complaint supporting this claim
against the Commonwealth under the Act are identical to those in his June 17, 2016 complaint
against Fayette County. We find Mr. Geness’ unexplained delay in locating a nearly thirteen
year old Supreme Court case lacks merit.
As shown below, we also find his amended claim
against the Commonwealth is futile.
A. Mr. Geness’ amended claim against the Commonwealth is not barred by
We cannot find precedent for a disabled person stating a claim under the Act by alleging
the state court system denied him access on the basis of his mental illness by ordering
competency evaluations, failing to rule on his habeas corpus petitions, and the content of a
court’s nolle prosequi order. Mr. Geness does not cite cases supporting his theory. Mr. Geness
instead asks us to find a state court’s rulings, or lack thereof, discriminated against him on the
basis of his mental disability.
Mr. Geness is correct in his basic argument regarding Lane. In Lane, physically disabled
individuals who could not physically access the state courthouse brought a claim against
Tennessee under Title II of the ADA.7 Tennessee argued sovereign immunity protected it from
suit under Title II of the ADA because Congress did not validly abrogate its immunity. The
Supreme Court determined Congress validly abrogated sovereign immunity through § 5 of the
Fourteenth Amendment when it enacted Title II of the ADA “as it applies to the class of cases
implicating the accessibility of judicial services.”8 The Supreme Court held a private litigant
could “enforce the constitutional right of access to the courts” through Title II of the ADA.9 We
follow Lane and hold Pennsylvania could be liable under the Act under facts giving rise to a
claim under the Act.
While Lane applied to physical access to the courthouse, it did not address access to
courts for mental disabilities. The closest precedent we can find is a pro se plaintiff alleging a
claim the Commonwealth denied him access to the criminal justice system by failing to
accommodate his mental disabilities in Davila v. Commonwealth.10 The plaintiff alleged the
Commonwealth failed to accommodate his mental disabilities by, among other things, failing to
provide him a mental health specialist to help him understand the proceedings equal to a nondisabled person.11
In Davila, the court evaluated Title II of the Act providing “no qualified individual with a
disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the
benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to
discrimination by any such entity.”12 The elements of this claim are (1) plaintiff is disabled; (2)
plaintiff is otherwise qualified to participate in the service, programs, or activity of the public
entity; and, (3) plaintiff is denied the benefits of the service, program, or activity or is
discriminated against on the basis of his disability.13 A plaintiff does not need to prove a public
entity deliberately discriminated against him; a plaintiff can assert the public entity failed to
reasonably accommodate his disability.14 In a failure to accommodate claim, “the plaintiff must
demonstrate that, but for the failure to accommodate, he would not be deprived of the benefit he
Our Court of Appeals instructs providing a disabled person access to a program is not
enough but the disabled person “must be provided with meaningful access.”16 Regulations under
the Act require public entities afford a disabled person with “an opportunity to participate in or
benefit from the aid, benefit, or service that is not equal to that afforded others” and they must
“take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with…participants…with disabilities are
as effective as communications with others.”17
In Davila, the court held a plaintiff could state a claim under Title II of the Act alleging
the Commonwealth denied him access to the criminal justice system by failing to accommodate
his mental disabilities so he could be afforded the same access and communications as nondisabled defendants.18 The court, however, granted summary judgment for the defendant based
on plaintiff’s failure to factually support his claims and failure to show injury under the Act. 19
As in Davila, we could find a claim under the Act against the Commonwealth if the
disabled party can state a claim. But this is not the case.
B. Mr. Geness’ claim against Pennsylvania is barred by Rooker-Feldman.
This case presents a vastly different fact pattern warranting a different result. Mr.
Geness’ allegations are not premised on lack of accommodations to provide equal access to
either a building or professional assistance but a direct challenge to a state court’s orders and
Mr. Geness’ claim under the Act is squarely barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
“The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars federal jurisdiction under two circumstances: if the claim
was ‘actually litigated’ in state court or if the claim is ‘inextricably intertwined’ with the state
adjudication.”20 “State and federal claims are inextricably intertwined ‘(1) when in order to
grant the federal plaintiff the relief sought the federal court must determine that the state court
judgment was erroneously entered’ [or] (2) when ‘the federal court must…take action that would
render [the state court’s’] judgment ineffectual.’”21
To find the Commonwealth denied Mr. Geness access to the courts, as plead, we would
have to find the state court “erroneously entered” orders and judgments. 22 We would need to act
as an appellate court or be considering a timely and exhausted habeas corpus petition. We see
no basis, and counsel has not cited a basis, to use the Act as another challenge to state court
criminal rulings. In contrast, we would have a different analysis had Mr. Geness timely alleged
the deprivation of certain privileges in the state courts by not providing him with the assistance
necessary for his disabilities. But Mr. Geness challenges only the prudence or legality of
decisions made by state judges long ago in a criminal case.
This “contrary decision by [us] on
an issue resolved on the merits by a state court is precisely the brand of federal appellate review
that Rooker-Feldman is intended to prevent.”23
In the accompanying Order, we grant Mr. Geness leave to amend his complaint to
remove Defendant Jean McVey and his conspiracy claim against Defendant Cox and Jean
McVey. He has not stated a claim against the Commonwealth under the Act. At best, he states
a claim to correct a state court’s procedures but these claims have no nexus to the Act. We have
no basis to find a state court’s rulings affecting a disabled person, absent physical impossibility
or interference or failure to provide assistance violates the Act. If we were to hold otherwise, we
would transform the Act into a quasi-habeas challenge to state court final rulings in a criminal
case with a disabled defendant. We deny Mr. Geness leave to add a disabilities claim against the
Commonwealth because his allegations are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
ECF Doc. No. 1.
ECF Doc. No. 34.
ECF Doc. No. 43.
ECF Doc. No. 76.
Payne v. DeLuca, No. 02-1926, 2006 WL 3590014, at *9 (W.D. Dec. 11, 2006)(quoting Foman
v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962)).
Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 533-34 (2004).
Lane, 541 U.S. at 513-14.
Id. at 530.
Id. at 530; see also Muhammed v. Court of Common Pleas of Alleghany County, Pa., 483 Fed.
Appx. 759, 764 (3d Cir. 2012) (Court of Appeals held a visually impaired plaintiff stated a claim
under the ADA because he “was unable to participate in [the state court system] in the manner a
non-visually impaired individual could because he was not provided with an assistive device).
Davila v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, No. 11-1092, 2016 WL 873237, at *3 (Jan. 20,
2016)(report and recommendation adopted sub nom. Davila v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,
No. 11-1092, 2016 WL 861884 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 7, 2016)). Mr. Davila appealed and our Court of
Appeals dismissed his appeal for failure to file a brief. See Docket for Appeal No. 16-1657 (3d
Id. at 3.
Id. at 5 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12132(1)).
See id. at 6.
Id. at 6 (quoting Muhammad, 483 Fed. Appx. At 764).
Id. (quoting C.G. v. Pennsylvania Dep’t of Educ., 734 F.3d 229, 237 (3d Cir. 2013)(internal
Id. at 5 (citing 28 C.F.R. §§ 35.130(b)(1)(ii) and 35.160(a)(1)).
Davila, 2016 WL 873237, at *3.
Id. at 7-8.
ITT Corp. v. Intelnet Intern., 366 F.3d 205, 210 (3d Cir. 2004)(quoting Desi’s Pizza, Inc. v.
City of Wilkes-Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d Cir. 2003)).
Id. (quoting Desi’s Pizza, 321 F.3d at 421 and FOCUS v. Allegheny Cty. Court of Common
Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996)).
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