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United States v. Dominguez-Figueroa

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 9, 2017

RAÚL DOMÍNGUEZ-FIGUEROA, Defendant, Appellant.


          Heather Clark and Clark Law Office on brief for appellant.

          Thomas F. Klumper, Assistant United States Attorney, Senior Appellate Counsel, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, and Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, on brief for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Lynch, Circuit Judges.


         A jury convicted Raúl Domínguez-Figueroa of three charges stemming from a fraudulent scheme to obtain disability benefits from the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). He now appeals from both his convictions and his sentence. Finding no merit to his arguments, we affirm.


         Domínguez is a lifelong resident of Ciales, Puerto Rico and worked there from 1993 until 2010 as a welder for Thermo King, a manufacturer of refrigeration units for tractor-trailers. Between April 2008 and January 2009, Thermo King closed its Ciales plant and transferred all the plant's employees, including Domínguez, to a different plant in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. On November 3, 2010, Domínguez submitted a written resignation letter, which cited transportation problems as his reason for resigning.

         On February 8, 2011, Domínguez first visited Dr. Luis Escabí-Pérez ("Dr. Escabí"), a psychiatrist, who had previously worked as an SSA claims examiner -- and who would ultimately become Domínguez's co-defendant in this prosecution. According to Dr. Escabí's trial testimony, [1] Domínguez showed symptoms consistent with mild to moderate depression, not severe enough to prevent him from working. Claimants are entitled to SSA disability benefits only if their disability is so severe that they cannot work. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

         Nevertheless, Dr. Escabí further testified, he agreed to help Domínguez obtain SSA disability benefits by (1) backdating his first appointment to December 9, 2010; (2) exaggerating Domínguez's symptoms, diagnosing him with severe depression, and prescribing unnecessarily strong medications; and (3) scheduling unnecessary monthly appointments until the SSA approved Domínguez's application for benefits. Dr. Escabí knew, based in part on his experience as an SSA claims examiner, that these actions would help Domínguez obtain SSA approval for disability benefits to which Domínguez was not entitled.[2]

         On May 20, 2011, Domínguez applied for SSA disability benefits via telephone. The SSA claims representative advised Domínguez several times that the application was being submitted under penalty of perjury. Domínguez told the representative that his disabling depression had begun on December 9, 2010, and that it had caused him to stop working. In July 2011, he mailed an Adult Function Report to the SSA, using template answers provided by Dr. Escabí that exaggerated Domínguez's true condition. On July 24, 2011, Dr. Escabí submitted a Psychiatric Medical Report to the SSA, in which he, too, exaggerated the severity of Domínguez's condition. Based on all this information, Domínguez was approved for SSA disability benefits on February 28, 2012, with a disability onset date of December 9, 2010. He was awarded a retroactive payment of $10, 437 and prospective monthly payments of $1, 187.

         In September and October 2014, SSA officers conducted surveillance of Domínguez and interviewed him. Their investigation revealed that Domínguez had few or no symptoms of the severe depression he and Dr. Escabí had continued to report to the SSA: for example, he could interact and converse normally with others, drive a car, carry out simple chores, be outside alone, and withstand noise. SSA officers also visited Domínguez's Facebook page and printed out several photos, all uploaded at times when Domínguez had told the SSA he was disabled. The photos, some of which depicted Domínguez socializing with others, reinforced the officers' suspicion that he and Dr. Escabí had been misrepresenting the severity of his depression.

         On January 13, 2015, Domínguez and Dr. Escabí were jointly indicted. The counts against Domínguez included conspiring to defraud the United States (Count One), see 18 U.S.C. § 371, stealing government property (Count Three), see id. § 641, and making material false statements in an application for disability benefits (Count Five), see 42 U.S.C. § 408(a)(2). After an eight-day trial, in which Dr. Escabí testified as a government witness, the jury found Domínguez guilty on Counts One, Three, and Five, and found that the total amount of wrongfully obtained disability payments was $87, 268.

         The district court sentenced Domínguez to ten months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release, to be served concurrently on all three counts, and ordered him to pay $87, 268 in ...

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