Published August, 2014

Turner v. Colvin, WL 1401928 (C.D. Cal. 2014)

Turner, the plaintiff, applied for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits based on bipolar disorder, HIV infection, lymphoma, and hepatitis C infection. An administrative law judge’s (ALJ) rejected his application, concluding that he is capable of performing “medium work but [i]s restricted to unskilled tasks.” Turner appealed, and the ALJ’s decision was affirmed by the United States District Court for the Central District of California in this unpublished decision.

Turner relied on the opinion of his primary care physician, Dr. Song, who had given evidence that he suffered: “repeated manifestations of HIV infection”; recurrent bacterial infections; hepatitis resulting in chronic liver disease; lymphoma; HIV encephalopathy “characterized by cognitive or motor dysfunction”; HIV wasting syndrome; and diarrhea “lasting for 1 month or longer, resistant to treatment and requiring intravenous hydration, intravenous alimentation, or tube feeding.” Though a primary care physician’s opinion usually carries more weight than other opinions, the ALJ can disregard it if it “is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” The court focused on the ALJ’s finding that Dr. Song’s opinion was inconsistent with the medical evidence of Turner’s treatment, and thus upheld the ALJ’s decision.

This case underscores the need for patients to know their rights, and for doctors to document their treatment as specifically as possible. More generally, doctors must be aware of the administrative hurdles their patients may face in the future and receive training regarding their role in supporting their patients through those processes. For example, Turner’s recurrent bacterial infections were dismissed because the record showed they required “only brief hospitalization.” More detailed accounts of his hospitalization and treatment may have provided the required medical evidence to support Dr. Song’s opinion.