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United States v. Sostre-Cintron

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 20, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
ALBERTO SOSTRE-CINTRÓN, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S. District Judge]

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

          Michael R. Hasse for appellant.

          B. Kathryn Debrason, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

          KAYATTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         A federal jury convicted Alberto Sostre-Cintrón of conspiring to defraud the United States and stealing government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 641 after finding that he falsely claimed eligibility for Social Security benefits and received nearly $100, 000 in disability insurance disbursements to which he was not entitled. On appeal, Sostre challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions and the procedural reasonableness of his sentence. Because we find that there was ample evidence from which a jury could have reasonably determined that Sostre was a knowing and willing participant in this fraudulent scheme and because we discern no error in the district judge's sentencing rationale, we affirm Sostre's convictions and sentence.

         I. Background

         We recount the facts pertinent to Sostre's appeal "in the light most favorable to the verdict." United States v. Díaz-Rosado, 857 F.3d 116, 121 (1st Cir. 2017).

         A psychiatrist named Dr. Luis Escabí-Pérez became well acquainted with the Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB") application process after working as a Social Security Administration ("SSA") patient evaluator for over thirty years. After retiring from the SSA, Escabí hatched a plan to coach patients through the application process to guarantee the approval of their applications. In return, Escabí's patients compensated him and agreed to give him a kickback in the form of a portion of their back pay upon receipt of their first DIB check.

         In order to qualify for DIB payments, an applicant must demonstrate that "he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). To enable his "patients" to appear to satisfy these requirements, Escabí back-dated documents, fabricated records of appointments that never occurred, reported false diagnoses and symptoms not experienced or reported by his patients, and instructed them on how to deceive SSA personnel during interviews.

         Sostre met with Escabí for the first time on September 1, 2010, and visited his office on three subsequent occasions. At Sostre's first appointment, the two agreed to falsely state in Sostre's psychiatric medical report (to be submitted to the SSA as part of Sostre's DIB application) that Sostre had seen Escabí for medical treatment on a monthly basis since June 9, 2009. In the same report, Escabí also attributed a number of symptoms to Sostre that, according to Escabí, Sostre did not exhibit, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and bad memory. Escabí provided a diagnosis of major depressive disorder though he did not believe that Sostre was depressed. Escabí also reported that Sostre was homebound and had been unemployed since April 2009. However, Sostre admitted in an unrelated bankruptcy proceeding to working as a landscaper and gardener through at least 2011 and to earning $1, 000 per month in this role. Sostre paid Escabí $500 for completing his SSA-DIB application and agreed to pay him $4, 000 more upon receiving his benefits back pay.

         Sostre also signed papers that he submitted to the SSA stating that he required assistance completing basic household tasks, such as preparing food, bathing, and managing his finances, and that he was unable to drive. And in a telephone interview with an SSA-claims representative, Sostre reiterated that he had been unable to work since April 2009 due to his depression and muscular pain and that Escabí had been treating him since June 2009. Based upon Sostre's representations under penalty of perjury and Escabí's report, the SSA awarded Sostre back pay in the amount of $19, 278 and monthly disability payments of $1, 071. The SSA also notified Sostre in writing of his obligation to report medical improvements or a return to work. In total, Sostre received $99, 589 in disability benefits from 2011 through 2014.

         In 2014, Officer Elliot Meléndez and SSA Agent Joel Ferris investigated Sostre. Meléndez testified to observing Sostre perform gardening services at another individual's residence, drive his vehicle, run errands, and socialize in his community. All the while, Sostre was supposedly homebound and unable to work or drive according to the representations he had made to the SSA. In December 2014, the SSA stopped making payments to Sostre based upon Meléndez's and Ferris's investigation.

         Subsequently, a federal grand jury indicted Sostre for conspiring to defraud the United States and theft of government property. A jury found him guilty on both counts. The district court sentenced Sostre to fifteen months' imprisonment with three years of supervised release and ...


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