Friday, September 25, 2009

ALJ Nisenewitz: Stupid or Biased?

Administrative Law Judge David Nisnewitz (“ALJ”) denied a fibromyalgia claimant’s application for the second time. The first time the Appeals Council rejected the ALJ’s denial because there was no medical evidence contradicting the opinion of the treating rheumatologist. This time, the ALJ relied upon the opinion of a non-examining medical expert (“ME”) to deny the claimant’s application, even though a federal court previously told the ALJ that the testimony of an ME, the lone dissenting physician, “does not constitute substantial evidence to overcome the opinions of the treating physician” that the claimant is disabled.

The ALJ knows from his past cases that he cannot elevate an ME’s opinion over a treating physician’s opinion. Therefore, how is it possible to explain the ALJ’s repeating the same mistake? What possible excuse did the ALJ have for repeating his error, especially since he was reminded in, not one, not two, but three letters that he had been admonished previously for improperly rejecting the opinion of the treating physician in favor of the ME?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “stupid” as slow to apprehend or dumb, and “bias” as a preference that inhibits impartial judgment. Did the ALJ fail to realize that he was repeating his mistake, despite being reminded in the three letters that elevating an ME’s opinion over a treating physician’s opinion was improper? If so, then it would seem that the ALJ was slow to apprehend the issue, which is the American Heritage Dictionary definition for “stupid”.

Alternatively, the ALJ could have realized that he was repeating his mistake. If so, then it would seem that his preference for denying disability claims inhibited his impartial judgment, which is the American Heritage Dictionary definition for bias. Notably, in a recent Michigan case, another ALJ was accused of bias because his approval rate for disability cases was 41% and 28% in 2005 and 2006. In contrast, it appears that ALJ Nisnewitz’s approval rate was 35% for 2005 and 25% for 2006. The Michigan court also noted there was no evidence of inappropriate comments or animus by the ALJ. On the other hand, Judge Irizarry found ALJ Nisnewitz has displayed both.

It is unlikely that anything will be done about biased ALJs because the courts rely upon the SSA to investigate such matters, and in my experience the SSA evades that responsibility. Despite a court stating that investigating ALJ bias allegations would be appropriate on remand in another case, the SSA has refused to fulfill its duty to investigate the allegations. Instead, the SSA speciously claims that the court directed it to comply with a FOIA request, which simply was not the case.

Prudential Reverses Fibromyalgia STD & LTD Denial

I represent a former banker afflicted with fibromyalgia whose short term disability (“STD”) and long term disability (“LTD”) claims had been denied by Prudential Insurance Company of America. Prudential had based its decision to terminate STD benefits and deny LTD benefits on a so-called independent medical examination (“IME”) by a rheumatologist who does not regularly treat fibromyalgia.

The IME admitted the claimant has fibromyalgia; admitted that fibromyalgia is a pain syndrome, admitted that no objective testing exists for fibromyalgia; admitted that the claimant has a global pain syndrome; admitted that the pain is difficult to measure; and admitted that the claimant’s treatment is appropriate. The only difference between the opinions of Dr. Jason Faller, the claimant’s treating rheumatologist, and the IME, was that the IME stated that because the claimant’s pain was difficult to measure, she had no functional limitation. While the IME may have had difficulty measuring the claimant’s pain, Dr. Faller, as the claimant’s long time treating doctor, did not.

Prudential said that the only evidence of functional impairment was the claimant’s self-reported statements, but failed to identify what else could possibly exist other than Dr. Faller’s finding of severe trigger points. The IME had asserted that the claimant’s complaints were inconsistent with range of motion findings, and that absent atrophy, neurological abnormalities and decreased range of motion, the claimant could not be functionally impaired.

In a very abbreviated nutshell, I pointed out that Social Security Disability cases held that “decreased range of motion and/or sensory impairments are not symptoms of fibromyalgia, and the absence of these non-symptoms thus does not reflect on the presence or severity of fibromyalgia.” Prudential implicitly conceded that while no diagnostic test is applicable for fibromyalgia, making it difficult to measure pain in these individuals, the person in the best position to measure the claimant’s pain was Dr. Faller who had examined her many times over many years. Accordingly, Prudential approved both STD and LTD benefits for the claimant

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

LTD & Health Insurance

Some companies provide their employees with group disability and health coverage. Frequently, the long term disability (“LTD”) and the health insurance plans are linked so that if you become disabled under the LTD plan your premium is waived under the health plan. Thus, your health insurance continues while you are disabled. A problem arises when the LTD insurance company wrongfully terminates or denies LTD benefits, which results in a loss of health care coverage.

When you eventually succeed in securing your LTD benefits, you should not forget to seek reimbursement for your health care expenses. Any money paid toward COBRA or for other health insurance premiums should be sought. Similarly, if health insurance lapsed because the premium could not be afforded, your out of pocket costs should be sought. You should not have to pay any more than you would have if your health insurance was not wrongfully terminated or denied.

Sometimes other employee benefits are also linked to your LTD plan. When seeking LTD benefits always make sure that you have copies of a Summary Plan Description for each group benefit plan that covered you while working.