August 18, 2017

Archives for July 31, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Appeals Council Required Only to “Consider” New Evidence of Disability

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Vallejo v. Berryhill on February 28, 2017.

Vallejo applied for supplemental security income benefits alleging that she had been disabled for several months. The US Social Security Administration denied her claim. She received a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ), who issued a decision adverse to Vallejo. The next day, Vallejo’s treating physician, Dr. Ratner, completed his opinion, which stated that Vallejo was bipolar with an extreme level of impairment. Vallejo requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ’s decision and submitted Ratner’s opinion with her request. The Appeals Council denied review, stating that it considered Ratner’s opinion and additional evidence but found the evidence did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ’s decision. This rendered the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision.

Vallejo sought judicial review of the Commission’s final decision. The district court found that the Appeals Council erred in not properly articulating its assessment of Ratner’s opinion in denying Vallejo’s request for review. The court reasoned that the Appeals Council was required to either assign Ratner’s opinion controlling weight or articulate reasons for assigning it a lesser weight. Because neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council expressly evaluated Ratner’s opinion, the district court reversed the Commissioner’s decision and remanded to the Appeals Council to either determine what weight to give Ratner’s opinion or to remand to an ALJ with directions to make such a determination.

The Tenth Circuit held that it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal because the district court’s remand was a sentence-four remand. The Tenth Circuit held this because the district court did not retain jurisdiction and the remand was not solely for consideration of new evidence that was not before the Commissioner.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the issue of whether the district court’s determination that the Appeals Council failed to apply the correct legal standard was an error.

The Tenth Circuit held that the Appeals Circuit was not required to expressly analyze the new evidence of Ratner’s opinion. Rather, the statutes or regulations only require the Appeals Council to “consider” the new evidence. The Tenth Circuit acknowledges that an express analysis from the Appeals Council would be helpful to judicial review. But, further states that nothing in the statutes or regulations requires the Appeals Council to provide that analysis.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s order reversing the Commissioner’s final decision and remanding to the Appeals Council. The Tenth Circuit remanded to the district court with directions to address Vallejo’s remaining arguments and determine if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence in the administrative record supported the Commissioner’s final decision.

Tenth Circuit: Jury Instructions Sufficient to Apprise Jury of Elements of Crime

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Wright on Tuesday, February 21, 2017.

Bruce Carlton Wright was convicted on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1349 and 1344, and on eleven counts of bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. Wright was sentenced to thirty-three months imprisonment and ordered to pay restitution to the bank involved. Wright appealed, claiming the district court erred by: (1) not including intent to defraud as an element of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in the jury instruction; (2) responding to a written question from the jury by directing the jury to consider each count of the indictment separately; (3) denying Wright’s motion for new trial based on a Brady violation; (4) improperly calculating of the bank’s loss amount under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1); and (5) improperly calculating of the restitution amount.

Because Wright did not properly object during his original trial in relation to his first, second, fourth, and fifth claims on appeal, the court reviewed them under the plain-error standard, which requires a plaintiff to establish an “error, that is plain, which affects substantial rights, and seriously effects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” The court stated that a plain error affects a defendant’s substantial rights if there is a reasonable probability that, if the error had not occurred, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Concerning Wright’s first claim, that the court erred by not including the necessary element of intent to defraud to convict on a charge of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in the jury instruction, the court reviewed the jury instructions in light of the context of the entire trial to see if the instructions accurately stated the law and provided the jury with a correct understanding of the facts of the case. The court rejected this claim, saying that Wright could not show error because, while the court did not list intent to defraud in the instruction, the omission was cured because the instruction relating to committing bank fraud did incorporate “intent to defraud” by requiring an agreement to commit bank fraud.

During deliberations, the jury asked the judge if it they had to find Wright guilty on count 1 in order to convict him on any of the subsequent counts. Over objection of counsel, who agreed with the legal answer provided by the court but requested different phrasing, the judge responded, “No, you must consider each count separately.” On appeal, Wright contends that the answer should have been “Yes,” because, citing Pinkerton v. United States, the conviction would have been based on the acts of a co-conspirator and not his own acts (as his co-conspirator was testifying at his trial). The court stated that Wright had waived his ability to assert error under Pinkerton by failing to object on that basis at the district court level.  Instead, because Wright had generally objected to the instruction, the court reviews for plain error. However, because Wright argued under an abuse of discretion, and not plain error he waived his right to argue the claim.

In support for his motion for new trial, Wright argued that the government withheld a victim impact statement that the bank president had prepared for his coconspirator’s sentencing. Wright claimed that the information would have helped him to impeach his co-conspirator at his own trial. In their assessment of Wright’s motion, the court stated that Wright would have to show the prosecution suppressed material evidence that was favorable to Wright.  While the court determined the statement was not given to Wright prior to the trial, and that it was favorable to him, he failed in showing that the information included in the impact statement was material enough that it could have undermined confidence in the outcome of the case because Wright already attacked his co-conspirator’s credibility extensively at trial.

In calculating Wright’s sentence and amount of restitution he would be required to pay to the victims, the district court looked to the amount of Wright’s fraudulent draw requests, and determined he owed to be $1,094, 490. Wright was provided the sum in the presentencing report, which he accepted. Because the Bank recovered sums due to its sale, the sales price should be subtracted from the outstanding loan balance to calculate restitution to avoid a windfall to the victim. However, because the amount of restitution and sentence is a factual question, Wright was required to object at the district court level for it to rise to the level of a plain error reviewable on appeal. Wright accepted the amount in the pre-sentencing report, and the court held that Wright had accepted the calculation of restitution and his sentence as correct.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s rejection of Wright’s motion for new trial and rejected Wright’s other claims as to the amount and length of his sentence.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 7/28/2017

On Friday, July 28, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and one unpublished opinion.

United States v. Garcia-Damian

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, some published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.