United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION IN SUPPORT OF
Baker United States Magistrate Judge
Gary A. appeals the Social Security Administration's
denial of his application for disability benefits. The
primary issue on appeal is whether the ALJ erred in
attributing a May 2016 medical opinion solely to Dr. Jennifer
Reed, a medical resident. Dr. Reed printed and signed her
name on the opinion. As discussed below, Dr. Michael Wilson
added his name stamp to the opinion, and may have signed it.
The ALJ did not attribute any part of the medical opinion to
Dr. Wilson or articulate her reasons for solely attributing
it to Dr. Reed. Therefore, the Court grants Plaintiff's
request for remand so the ALJ can further determine to whom
the medical opinion should be attributed and at least
minimally articulate her findings. [Filing No. 17.]
evaluating Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ used the SSA's
five-step sequential evaluation process. See20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (explaining the five-step process).
At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not
engaged in substantially gainful employment during the
eligibility period. At step two, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff is severely impaired with cervical and lumbar
degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the cervical
spine, and hypertension. However, at step three, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff's combination of impairments do
not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Therefore, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff is not presumptively disabled. The
ALJ continued by calculating Plaintiff's residual
functional capacity. At steps four and five, the ALJ
determined that based on his RFC, age, education, and work
experience, Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant
work, but he can perform jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy. In evaluating
Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ relied on an RFC questionnaire
and the resulting medical opinion. The ALJ attributed this
opinion solely to Dr. Reed.
argues that the ALJ erred in attributing the May 2016 RFC
medical opinion solely to Dr. Reed. In support, he contends
that the opinion was cosigned by Dr. Wilson, who then used a
name stamp to add his printed name and contact information.
Plaintiff further points out that he told the ALJ at the
administrative hearing that Dr. Wilson filled out the RFC
questionnaire. Plaintiff contends that this error equates to
a failure to consider Dr. Wilson's opinion. Further,
Plaintiff argues that Dr. Wilson is his treating physician
and should have been afforded controlling weight, or
alternatively, that the ALJ should have analyzed the 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) regulatory factors to determine the
weight that Dr. Wilson's opinion should carry relative to
other medical sources.
Deputy Commissioner counters that Dr. Reed signed the RFC
questionnaire by hand and that Dr. Wilson only stamped it.
Further, the Deputy Commissioner points out that Dr.
Wilson's stamp is not a reproduction of his signature but
merely displays his name, facility, and contact information.
The Deputy Commissioner relies on Avila v. Rubin, 84
F.3d 222, 228 (7th Cir. 1996), to argue that a stamp is not
sufficient for the ALJ to conclude that the opinion was
authored by Dr. Wilson. However, Avila contemplated
a signature stamp placed on mass-produced collection letters.
Id. at 225. Avila is not analogous to
highly personal medical opinions authored for the sole
purpose a single patient. The Deputy Commissioner also cites
to Alphine State Bank v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 941
F.2d 554, 560 (7th Cir. 1994), to argue that a stamp does not
constitute a signature. However, in Alphine, the
Seventh Circuit merely held that the lower court erred by
straying “beyond the definition contained in the
bond” and “definitions contained within
[policies] are controlling.” Id.A bond policy
with its own definition of a signature is not analogous to
Social Security claims. Furthermore, Plaintiff replies that
by “cosign” he means that Dr. Wilson hand-signed
the medical opinion and that he merely used the name stamp in
lieu of printing his name. [Filing No. 26, at ECF p.
1-2.] Plaintiff points out that the two signatures are
separated by a “slash” and the second signature,
though illegible, should have been attributed to Dr. Wilson.
only Social Security regulation that contemplates name stamps
is in the context of consultative examinations. It states,
“[a] rubber stamp signature of a medical source or the
medical source's signature entered by any other person is
not acceptable.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1519n(e). But the
medical opinion at issue in this case is not a consultative
examination, which the SSA regulation defines as an
examination ordered and funded by the SSA if they cannot get
the information needed from the claimant's own medical
sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1519a. These examinations may
be utilized by the SSA when they are necessary to
“resolve any inconsistency in the evidence, or when the
evidence as a whole is insufficient . . . .”
Id.A medical opinion authored by a claimant's
physician does not fall within this definition.
have a duty to develop the record by investigating the facts
and developing arguments for and against granting benefits
because “Social Security proceedings are inquisitional
rather than adversarial.” Sims v. Apfel, 530
U.S. 103, 110-11 (2000) (four-Justice plurality adopting this
proposition); Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No.
08-2018, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127469, at *37-38 (C.D. Ill.
Feb. 3, 2009) (following Sims, 530 U.S. at 110-11).
Furthermore, ALJs are required to confront the evidence in
front of them, especially the evidence that does not support
their conclusion, and “explain why it was
rejected.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d
470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004). Once this duty is fulfilled, ALJs
must “minimally articulate” their findings so the
reviewing court can follow the path in their reasoning.
See Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 371
(7th Cir. 2004).
erred in her duty to develop the record by failing to discern
whose opinion she analyzed. In her discussion of the May 2016
medical opinion, the ALJ makes no reference to Dr.
Wilson's name stamp or the illegible signature that might
be reasonably attributable to him. [Filing No. 9-2, at
ECF p. 16, R. at 15.] Instead, she attributed the
opinion solely to Dr. Reed, a resident at Dr. Wilson's
facility. [Id.] But the stamp and signature are not
hidden and the ALJ should have seen them. [SeeFiling No.
9-8, at ECF p. 65, R. at 367.] The stamp clearly
indicates Dr. Wilson's name, status as a medical doctor
and Ph.D., address of the facility, and telephone number.
[Id.] Furthermore, Dr. Reed's signature is
followed by a slash and another signature. [Id.]
There is no indication that the ALJ attempted to determine to
whom the other signature belonged. Of particular note,
Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing, and the
ALJ recognized, that Dr. Wilson worked with Plaintiff to fill
out the RFC questionnaire that resulted in the May 2016
medical opinion. Also, the ALJ referred to Dr. Wilson as the
“claimant's primary physician, ” [Filing
No. 9-2, at ECF p. 16, R. at 15], so the ALJ knew the
importance of Dr. Wilson's perspective. Seeing his name
stamp should have prompted the ALJ to investigate further.
erred by not investigating to whom the May 2016 medical
opinion should be attributed because she knew who Dr. Wilson
was, how important treating physicians are to Social Security
claims, the conspicuous nature of the stamp, and recognized
at the hearing that Dr. Wilson worked on the medical opinion
in question. Furthermore, whether or not the ALJ fulfilled
this requirement, she had a duty to minimally articulate her
findings so that, on review, this Court can follow the path
of her reasoning. However, there is no indication in the
ALJ's decision that she properly investigated the source
of the medical opinion or articulated the results of her
findings. Thus, the ALJ failed in her duty to develop the
ALJ's error was harmful. The harmful error doctrine asks
whether the ALJ might have reached a different conclusion if
she had fulfilled her duty. See Spiva v.
Astrue, 628 F.3d 346, 353 (7th Cir. 2010). An error is
harmless if the Court can predict “with great
confidence that the agency will reinstate its decision on
remand because the decision is overwhelmingly supported by
the record, ” even though the ALJ's decision
contained error. Id.In the present case, the ALJ
could have assigned the May 2016 medical opinion controlling
weight if she attributed it to Dr. Wilson. Alternatively, the
ALJ would have at least examined the 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c) regulatory factors to determine what weight to
afford the opinion, which could have resulted in a finding of
disability. Therefore, the ALJ's error was harmful
because the Court cannot predict with great confidence that
the ALJ will reinstate her decision even after repairing the
also argues that Dr. Wilson's opinion should be assigned
controlling weight, or alternatively, that the ALJ failed to
weigh the relevant regulatory factors. Further, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ's credibility assessment of his
testimony is patently erroneous. The Court declines to
address these arguments at this time because the ALJ's
decision was based largely on a potentially incorrect
attribution of the above-discussed ...