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Curtis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

March 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's complaint seeking judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits. The fact and law summaries of Plaintiff and Defendant are at Dockets 17 and 20. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge to determine this case, with any appeal lying before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Docket 13.

         Because the administrative law judge's (ALJ's) decision was supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record and was in accord with applicable legal standards, the Court will AFFIRM the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISS Plaintiff's complaint.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is unsupported by substantial evidence because: 1) The decision failed to acknowledge her “severe, ” or vocationally significant, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and vasovagal syncope[1]; 2) The vocational expert (VE) failed to identify a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform; and 3) Plaintiff suffers from a spinal disorder satisfying the medical criteria of Listing 1.04(A) of Appendix 1 of the regulations.

         The ALJ did not err in finding non-severe vasovagal syncope.

         A “severe, ” or vocationally significant, impairment is any “medically determinable physical or mental impairment[2] that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509[3]” that “significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[4].” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c).

         Plaintiff has not identified evidence in the administrative record of a medically-determinable, or diagnosed, vasovagal syncope and, even if she had, she has not shown that the impairment significantly limits or limited her ability to do basic work activities for a period of time satisfying the duration requirement.

         In December 2014, Amir Zia, M.D., Director of the Autonomic Lab, performed testing of Plaintiff's sympathetic adrenergic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system and found that the results were “essentially normal, ” with “no evidence of … neurally-mediated (neurocardiogenic or vasovagal) syncope or an exaggerated postural tachycardia.” Administrative Record (AR), p. 180.

         The first mention of vasovagal syncope was in April 2014. Plaintiff was treated for lightheadedness, mild chest pain, and arrhythmias. Sandeep Gautam, M.D., said that he “believe[d] that [Plaintiff] has vasovagal presyncope, exacerbated by anxiety.” AR, p. 871. Dr. Gautam explained that the condition was “benign” and that Plaintiff needed to maintain adequate hydration, completely avoid caffeinated drinks, and make postural adjustments to prevent syncope. Id.

         In April 2014, Plaintiff completed a health questionnaire indicating that she had been diagnosed with vasovagal presyncope. AR, p. 902. While there are treatment notes listing vasovagal syncope / presyncope as a diagnosis or noting that it was a “problem” (AR, pp. 103, 137, 912, and 916), it appears that the notes were based on Plaintiff's self-reporting.

         Like the diagnosis, the alleged prescribed limitation of having to lie down and elevate her legs appears to be based on self-reporting. In May 2014, Plaintiff “state[d] [she] saw Cardiologist for results of cardionet and was told that she had vasovagal presyncope -- encourage to drink fluids, put legs up and move lower extremities frequently.” AR, p. 912.

         Plaintiff has failed to show that she suffers from “severe” vasovagal syncope requiring her to lie down and elevate her feet so frequently as to significantly limit her ability to do basic work activities. Compare Leffel v. Commissioner, 30 Fed.Appx. 459, 461 (6th Cir. 2002) (“The problem with Leffel's argument [that he has to lie down every day for several hours] is the fact that the record below contains no medical evidence describing such limitation”).

         Alternatively, any error in not recognizing that Plaintiff suffers from severe vasovagal syncope was, at worst, harmless error because the ALJ's RFC finding, adequately took into account the limiting effects of that impairment. See Maziarz v. Secretary,837 F.2d 240, 244 (6th Cir. 1987) (If the ALJ considered the limiting effects of all severe and non-severe impairments as a whole, the ALJ's failure to label a non-severe impairment as “severe” was, at worst, harmless error) and McGlothin v. Commissioner,299 Fed.Appx. 516, 522 (6th Cir. 2008) (It is ...

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