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Aguiniga v. Colvin

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 15, 2016

Theresa Kay Aguiniga Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: April 13, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines

          Before WOLLMAN, BEAM, and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.

          BEAM, Circuit Judge.

         Theresa Aguiniga appeals the district court's[1] decision affirming the Commissioner's decision to deny Aguiniga social security disability benefits. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Aguiniga, a 44-year-old woman (at the time of her alleged onset date), was in a motorcycle accident in September 2007, wherein she fractured her pelvis in six places, and also broke her wrist. An MRI performed in January 2008 indicated bulging discs in the lumbar and cervical region at several different locations. She complained of numbness and tingling in her extremities in numerous doctor visits following the accident. She saw doctors for these conditions and complained of pain regularly in the year following the accident. Nonetheless, in the fall of 2008, Aguiniga was discharged from physical therapy after cancelling three appointments and not rescheduling. Although she was treated with steroid injections for a time, she ultimately stopped that treatment, requesting that her pain be controlled with pain medications. Too, shortly after the accident, Aguiniga experienced psychological problems and saw mental health practitioners. However, she did not seek mental health therapy from June 2008 until December 2008. In the first half of 2009, she saw doctors for her back pain and a licensed social worker for mental health issues.

         Aguiniga first applied for social security disability benefits in late 2007, and was denied benefits initially on January 15, 2008, and on reconsideration on June 4, 2008. Aguiniga did not appeal[2] the denial of benefits after this first application. Instead, on May 12, 2009, Aguiniga filed a new application for disability benefits, alleging an onset disability date of April 28, 2009. In late June and early July 2009, Aguiniga's physical and mental Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) evaluations were prepared by the Social Security Administration's disability determination services. The physical assessment indicated some exertional limitations and occasional postural limitations. The mental assessment indicated Aguiniga would be moderately limited in sustained concentration and social interaction. Aguiniga's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. She appealed to the ALJ, and after filing her appeal, via a March 26, 2010 letter from her attorney to the ALJ, she moved to reopen her prior (2007) application, effectively alleging that her current onset of disability date should be the date of the motorcycle accident, September 7, 2007. Included with the attorney's letter to the ALJ was a March 2010 report from a vocational expert who opined that Aguiniga would not be able to return to her past relevant work as a mail clerk or information specialist, because of her physical and mental impairments. Without addressing her motion to reopen or holding a hearing, on March 30, 2010, the ALJ issued a favorable decision, awarding Aguiniga benefits with an onset date of April 28, 2009. The ALJ found that Aguiniga had the severe impairments of adjustment/mood disorder; anxiety disorder; chronic pain syndrome; sequelae of motorcycle accident; status post multiple pelvic and sacral fractures, with left wrist fracture; degenerative changes of the cervical and lumbar spine; and exogenous obesity. The ALJ determined Aguiniga had the capability of performing sedentary work except that her ability to perform sedentary work was significantly limited by her mental impairments.

         Aguiniga appealed that favorable ruling, alleging that the ALJ should have considered her motion to reopen and awarded benefits from the onset date of September 7, 2007. The Commissioner also filed an unopposed motion to remand, arguing that the ALJ should have considered Aguiniga's request to reopen. On March 25, 2013, the district court directed the Appeals Council to remand the case to the ALJ to issue a new decision and consider the entire relevant period. Accordingly, the Appeals Council vacated the prior favorable decision, remanded, and directed the ALJ to hold a new hearing, as necessary, to issue a new decision that addresses the entire relevant period, and to resolve whether or not Aguiniga's original request for reopening (to consider the new date) should be granted.

         In September 2013, an ALJ (a different ALJ than the one who originally awarded benefits without a hearing) sent Aguiniga a notice of hearing stating, "[a]lthough you were previously determined to meet the disability requirements as of April 28, 2009, I will consider whether you have been disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of September 7, 2007 through the present." The ALJ also stated that if Aguiniga disagreed with the issues designated for hearing, "you must tell me in writing why you disagree." Aguiniga did not write to disagree with the issues so designated, and waived her right to appear at the hearing. At the hearing on November 4, 2013, the Commissioner's vocational expert testified but was only examined by the ALJ because Aguiniga's attorney did not appear at the hearing either.

         On December 23, 2013, the ALJ issued its decision and found Aguiniga has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; residuals of fracture and fixation of the left radius; the residuals of sacral and pelvic fractures; obesity; a mood disorder; and an anxiety disorder. The ALJ, expressly noting that the period of time it was considering was from September 7, 2007, through the date last insured, September 30, 2013, concluded Aguiniga could not perform her past relevant work as a general clerk, but retained the RFC to perform light work, with additional limitations, as a retail marker, mail clerk, and copy machine operator. Accordingly, Aguiniga was found to be not disabled. The district court affirmed the ALJ's decision. Aguiniga appeals, arguing the district court erred by failing to apply collateral estoppel to the first ALJ's decision awarding benefits. Aguiniga further faults the (second) ALJ's adverse credibility finding and its decision to discount the treating source physicians' opinions.

         II. DISCUSSION

         We review the district court's decision upholding the denial of social security benefits de novo, applying the same standard as the district court to the ALJ's decision–affirming if substantial evidence supports the decision and if on the whole, a reasonable mind could accept the ALJ's decision. Juszczyk v. Astrue, 542 F.3d 626, 631 (8th Cir. 2008).

         Aguiniga contends the ALJ should have been precluded from reconsidering Aguiniga's disability status post-April 2009, because in its Motion to Remand, the Commissioner only asked the ALJ to determine whether it should have considered Aguiniga's motion to reopen to add her new onset date. The Commissioner argues the doctrine of collateral estoppel is wholly inapplicable to this case because there is no final judgment to which the doctrine of collateral estoppel could conceivably attach. See Ginters v Frazier, 614 F.3d 822, 826 (8th Cir. 2010) (setting forth the elements required for operation of collateral estoppel, the fourth element being that the issue sought to be precluded must have been determined by a valid and final judgment). The Commissioner argues that the prior favorable decision Aguiniga would like to be given preclusive effect was actually vacated by the Appeals Council.

         Collateral estoppel and res judicata can apply in certain circumstances of social security determinations, when the issue involves the same evidence, and the same period of disability. See Rucker v. Chater, 92 F.3d 492, 495 (7th Cir. 1996) (holding that collateral estoppel was not applicable because the subsequent application for benefits involved a different time period and a different record); Hardy v. Chater, 64 F.3d 405, 407 (8th Cir. 1995) (same). Citing Rucker and Hardy, Aguiniga argues by extension, that because her application involves the same evidence and (part of) the same time period as her original application, the original ALJ's findings should be preclusive. However, in Hardy we noted that collateral estoppel applies in social security disability cases only after a decision has become final. 64 F.3d at 407. Neither Hardy nor Rucker involves what has happened here–the judgment sought to be enforced (the original ALJ decision) was vacated before it became final. See Atkins v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F. App'x 864, 868 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (noting that collateral estoppel doctrine did not revive a previously favorable ALJ decision that never became final because the Appeals Council vacated it). To the extent that Aguiniga argues the Appeals Council decision did ...


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