Monday, December 12, 2016

The "Co-Signature" of a Physician in a Social Security Disability Medical Opinion

In social security disability cases, the opinion of a treating doctor is given controlling weight unless it is contradicted by substantial evidence in the record.  Social security lawyers know that many doctors do not actually complete the medical opinions that are submitted in support of a claim.  Very often, they simply co-sign the questionnaires which are completed and signed by nurses or PA's in their offices.  (Obviously, it is always better when the treating doctor is the one who actually writes the opinion and signs the paperwork.) 

Given these circumstances, it is somewhat unclear what weight is given to medical opinions that are co-signed by an M.D.  Should these opinions be given "controlling weight" even when the physician did not examine the claimant?

A case recently decided in the Connecticut District Court addressed this question.  In Baldwin v. Colvin, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165596 * (D. Conn. Dec. 1, 2016), Magistrate Judge Joan Margolis ruled that Hartford ALJ Peter Borre  erred in ignoring the "co-signature" of a physician.  The case was remanded for a new hearing with the following instructions:
[U]pon remand, the ALJ shall consider "whether . . . [the co-signed] opinion[] [is that] of an acceptable medical source[.]" and "explicitly consider the treating physician factors so that [the ALJ] may comprehensively set forth [his] reasons for deciding whether to give the opinion[] controlling weight[.]" Johnson, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19515, 2016 WL 659664, at *3-4, and if the ALJ does not assign controlling weight to the opinion of the treating provider, explain the weight given to the opinions of the State agency consultant by considering the relevant factors set forth in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927.
Ignoring the co-signature of a physician is is a legal error even when the doctor who co-signs a form has not treated a claimant.  In accordance with social security disability regulations, the ALJ must make specific findings explaining the weight given to the opinion.