Geness v. Cox, 17-2073

Citation902 F.3d 344
Decision Date28 August 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17-2073,17-2073
Parties Craig A. GENESS, Appellant v. Jason COX
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)

Joel S. Sansone [Argued], Massimo Terzigni, 401 Liberty Avenue, Suite 1700, Three Gateway Center, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, Attorneys for Appellant Craig A. Geness

April L. Cressler, Paul D. Krepps, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, 501 Grant Street, Union Trust Building, Suite 700, Pittsburgh, PA 15219, Carol A. VanderWoude [Argued], Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, 2000 Market Street, Suite 2300, Philadelphia, PA 19103, Attorneys for Appellee Jason Cox

Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, GREENAWAY, JR., and KRAUSE, Circuit Judges


KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.

In a tragic case that suggests systemic deficiencies at the juncture of Pennsylvania's criminal justice and mental health systems, the Appellant in this case—an adult with mental retardation and other mental illness—was charged for a crime that may not have occurred and was then detained for nearly a decade awaiting trial, even though it was determined early in the proceedings that he was incompetent and unlikely to improve. With fault shared among the Uniontown Police Department, the Fayette County Public Defender's Office and later, private counsel, the Fayette County District Attorney's Office, the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, and the mental health infrastructure of Pennsylvania, Craig Geness's criminal case was inadequately investigated, inadequately defended, and inadequately monitored and supervised as Geness languished in various detention facilities. All the while, his petition for habeas relief remained pending. And when a hearing was finally held on that petition, the District Attorney's Office voluntarily dismissed the charges out of concern for its "ability to meet its burden of proof, even if the defendant were competent." App. 205a.

This appeal arises from Geness's subsequent lawsuit against the arresting officer, then-Detective Jason Cox,1 and various other defendants, claiming they violated his civil rights through reckless investigation, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and that they denied him due process and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C § 12131. But at this point—nearly a dozen years after Geness's arrest and with the performance of his various counsel marred by inexcusable delays and dilatory discovery efforts—most avenues of relief are now closed to him. For the reasons explained below, we will affirm the District Court's dismissal of Geness's § 1983 claims but will reverse its denial of leave for Geness to amend his complaint and will remand for him to reinstitute his due process and ADA claims against the Commonwealth.

I. Background
A. The Incident at the McVey Personal Care Home

In 2006, Craig Geness lived at the McVey Personal Care Home, an assisted living facility for intellectually disabled people, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. In October of that year, another resident, Ronald Fiffik, fell from the front porch of the building and sustained serious injuries. Hearing the resulting commotion, James McVey, the son of the owner and the supervisor then on duty, walked out to the porch to find Fiffik lying on the ground. He called for an ambulance, informing the dispatcher that a resident had fallen, and Fiffik was taken by an emergency medical services ("EMS") unit to Uniontown Hospital where he was treated before being discharged to the McVey Home later that day. That evening, however, Fiffik's pain intensified and he returned to the hospital where his condition continued to deteriorate, ultimately resulting in his death a few weeks later.

Three contemporaneous records from the day of the incident indicated that Fiffik had merely fallen in an unfortunate accident. First, the initial EMS record noted that the ambulance was dispatched "in response to a fall" and also reflected that Fiffik's wife had witnessed the incident and that she "stated that [Fiffik] walked out on porch and fell down approx[.] 5 steps head first." App. 193a. Next, a Uniontown police officer who responded to the scene filled out an incident report, stating that a "[c]aller ... reported that a male fell off of a porch" and that the officer took "[n]o further police action ... [because] no one onscene [sic ] could provide[ ] any information as to what happened other than [that] Fiffik fell off of the porch." App. 140. Finally, Fiffik's hospital admission records reflected that Fiffik was "alert, cooperative in no distress," that his "chief complaint" was that he "FELL," that he reported he "fell down approximately five stairs[,] ... [h]as [mental retardation

] and is unsteady and is not supposed to go near the stairs but he did and then he fell down them. It was witnessed. No loss of consciousness. Patient says he feels fine and he wants to go home." App. 171.

Notwithstanding these reports by Fiffik and his wife, once Fiffik's condition deteriorated to the point that he was on life support, his daughter reached out to the Uniontown Police Department to report her suspicion that her father might have been shoved. As a result, on November 16, 2006, Cox conducted a one-day investigation, which involved speaking to Fiffik's daughter and hospital personnel, interviewing James McVey, and then interviewing and obtaining a confession from Geness. Soon thereafter, Cox swore out a criminal complaint against Geness for aggravated assault, later upgraded to murder.

In his November 16th interview, with the prospect of a personal injury lawsuit, if not wrongful death suit looming, McVey reported for the first time that immediately prior to Fiffik's fall he heard Geness scream "shut up" from nearby and then saw Geness walk quickly inside to his bedroom. App. 141. McVey also said he then followed Geness to his room and asked if he pushed Fiffik, but Geness did not answer and instead "responded by laying in a fetal position on the bed." Id. In addition, McVey reported, again for the first time, that during the brief interlude between Fiffik's return to the McVey Home and his being readmitted to the hospital, Fiffik had told McVey that "someone" pushed him. App. 143.

With Geness now a suspect in an alleged crime, Cox proceeded to interview him. At that point, for reasons not apparent from the record, Geness had been transferred from the McVey Home to the Highlands Hospital where he had been admitted in the past and was then living as an in-patient. According to Cox's report, he had Geness brought to a room to meet with him, read Geness his Miranda warnings, and asked if Geness would speak with him concerning "the day that Ronald Fiffick fell from the wall." App. 141. Once Geness agreed and signed the Miranda waiver, Cox asked him the date, the day of the week, if he had gone to high school, and who was President of the United States. Geness correctly answered these questions and then, according to the report, provided a confession closely tracking McVey's account of events. That is, he admitted that on the day Fiffik was injured, Fiffik "said something" to him; he then "screamed at Fiffik ‘Shut Up’ " and "voices inside his head told him to push Fiffik over the wall"; and he "shoved Fiffik hard ... went up to his bedroom, and shut the door." Id .

In his Affidavit of Probable Cause in support of the arrest warrant, Cox recounted James McVey's allegations against Geness and Geness's confession, and on that basis, a magisterial district judge issued a warrant for Geness's arrest. From that point forward, according to the affidavit he filed in support of his motion for summary judgment in the District Court, Cox "no longer maintained an active role in the prosecution of Mr. Geness," "heard very little from the prosecution regarding this case for approximately seven years," "did not have any role in the subsequent decision making in the prosecution," and "was never contacted by [the] Public Defender ... or [Geness's private counsel] for information relating to [his] investigation...." App. 165. Also according to that affidavit, Cox did not reference the exculpatory evidence in the EMS report and the hospital admission records in his Affidavit of Probable Cause because he "ha[d] no recollection of ever having seen [them] prior to the filing of this lawsuit," and to obtain them, he would have required a search warrant, which he also "ha[d] no recollection of ever having obtained." App. 164.

Upon his arrest, Geness was taken into custody, where, between Fayette County Prison and a locked-down mental institution, he would remain for over nine years without any further investigation, a hearing on his habeas petition, or a trial.

B. Geness's Incarceration and Eventual Civil Commitment

The administration of justice went awry for Geness from the outset. After he was arraigned in November 2006, Geness did not receive a preliminary hearing in magisterial district court for over five months. The Public Defender filed a habeas motion in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County in June 2007, asserting that Geness's confession was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights and that Cox lacked probable cause to arrest. Yet that motion was not ruled upon as Judge Leskinen, to whom the case was assigned, opined that Geness was "not at the present time competent to stand trial," App. 147, and the Defender agreed to continue any hearing on the petition "until [d]efendant is competent," App. 148. Pursuant to Section 402 of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act, 50 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7402, Geness was ordered to be transferred to Mayview State Hospital, for no more than 60 days, to receive a psychiatric evaluation.

That transfer, however, was not carried out, and almost two months later, the court issued a second order for a psychiatric examination to be performed. Still no action was taken. Finally, in September...

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