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Brandt-Sterrett v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Western Division

May 8, 2019






         Plaintiff Jennifer Brandt-Sterrett (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). The district court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c) and 405(g). This matter has been referred to the undersigned for preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 72.2. (Non-document entry dated April 9, 2018). Following review, and for the reasons stated below, the undersigned recommends the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI in June 2014, alleging a disability onset date of July 17, 2012. (Tr. 512-18). Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 430-36, 439-43). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 446-47). Plaintiff (represented by counsel), and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at a hearing before the ALJ on December 8, 2016. (Tr. 209-38). On January 24, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled in a written decision. (Tr. 32-52). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the hearing decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955, 404.981, 416.1455, 416.1481. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action on April 9, 2018. (Doc. 1).

         Factual Background

         Personal Background and Testimony

         Plaintiff was born in October 1970, making her 42 years old at her alleged onset date and 46 years old at the time of the hearing. See Tr. 212. She had past work as a secretary and bookkeeper. (Tr. 213). At her secretarial job, Plaintiff sometimes also helped with miscellaneous tasks such as power washing the floors. (Tr. 214). Plaintiff estimated the heaviest lifting she did at this job was between 45-55 pounds. Id. Plaintiff also co-owned a flower shop with her mother in 2013 and 2014. (Tr. 215). There, her duties included checking inventory, supervising three to four employees, and lifting flower buckets weighing approximately 35-40 pounds each. (Tr. 215-16).

         Plaintiff testified she was was unable to work due to pain in her right foot, left leg, neck, lower back, and left shoulder. (Tr. 216). She also suffered from chest pain, aggravated by stress, and regular migraines. Id.

         Plaintiff lived in a house with her husband. (Tr. 213). She had a driver's license, but limited her driving due to pain in her right foot. Id. Plaintiff performed chores around the house, however, she needed “multiple breaks” in between each. (Tr. 217). She did not vacuum or mop. Id. Plaintiff cooked simple meals. (Tr. 218). She sometimes needed help getting out of the bathtub because her leg did not “work properly”. Id.

         Plaintiff did not have any hobbies, but previously scrapbooked regularly. (Tr. 217). She had to stop scrapbooking due to numbness and tingling in her hands. Id. Plaintiff taught Sunday school “for years” and was the craft director at her church for over twenty years. (Tr. 218). She stopped attending both due to hand pain and numbness. Id.

         Plaintiff estimated she could sit 45-50 minutes at a time, but would be in “extreme pain” afterwards. (Tr. 219). She could walk one city block before losing her breath and stand for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. Id.

         Relevant Medical Records

         In July 2012, Plaintiff saw Dawn McNaughton, M.D., due to a recent onset of persistent fatigue with heat exposure. (Tr. 663). Dr. McNaughton referred Plaintiff to cardiologist Rajendra Kakarla, M.D., for further evaluation. Id.

         Plaintiff saw Dr. Kakarla later in July 2012. (Tr. 714-15). She reported a history of congenital pulmonic stenosis with recent shortness of breath, palpitations, occasional dizziness, and left-sided chest pain. (Tr. 714). On examination, Plaintiff had normal sinus rhythm with a heart rate of 60 beats per minute. (Tr. 715). Dr. Kakarla ordered a 24-hour Holter monitor and an echocardiogram with Doppler. Id. He told Plaintiff to avoid caffeine and stay home from work for two weeks. Id.

         Later that month, Plaintiff sought treatment at the emergency room for heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and possible stroke symptoms. (Tr. 716). On examination, Plaintiff had a regular heart rate and rhythm with normal sounds, and no gallops, rubs, or murmurs. (Tr. 717). She had clear breath sounds and no respiratory distress. Id. Providers ordered intravenous fluids and discharged Plaintiff to her home the same day in satisfactory condition. Id.

         In August 2012, Plaintiff underwent echocardiogram testing. (Tr. 712). Testing revealed normal left ventricular systolic function, with no segmental wall motion abnormality, no evidence of atrial or vent mural thrombus, and no pericardial effusion. Id. Plaintiff had an increased pulmonic valve velocity “suggestive of mild to moderate pulmonic stenosis.” Id. Plaintiff treated with Dr. Kakarla the same day, immediately following the test. (Tr. 711). Dr. Kakarla noted Plaintiff had congenital pulmonic stenosis and “multiple vague symptoms”; he observed it was “unclear” if her symptoms were “related to her mild to moderate pulmonic stenosis.” Id.

         In October 2012, Plaintiff treated with cardiologist Balaji Tamarappoo, M.D. (Tr. 777-78). Plaintiff reported shortness of breath “with even minimal exertion”, chest tightness, and occasional “twinges” of chest pain. (Tr. 777). On examination, Plaintiff had normal sinus rhythm with no murmurs, rubs, or gallops. (Tr. 778). A transesophageal echocardiogram revealed a prominent ridge in the supravalvular region consistent with supravalvular pulmonic stenosis. Id. Later that month, Plaintiff underwent a pulmonic valvuloplasty. (Tr. 1172).

         In July 2013, Plaintiff saw cardiologist Richard Krasuski, M.D. (Tr. 690-94). Plaintiff reported immediate improvement following the procedure, however, she noted that progressive dyspnea and chest discomfort began approximately one week later. (Tr. 692). Examination revealed normal sinus rhythm with no systolic ejection murmur. (Tr. 693). Dr. Krasuski noted “[t]he valve gradient by echocardiography today looks pretty much as it did on the echocardiogram on the day after the procedure and there is only mild pulmonic valve regurgitation.” (Tr. 694).

         Plaintiff returned to Dr. Krasuski in March 2014. (Tr. 1250-54). She reported getting “progressively worse” after her last appointment in July 2013. (Tr. 1252). Plaintiff reported shortness of breath climbing less than one flight of stairs, when this happened, she also had sharp pains in the left mid-sternal region. Id. She denied orthopnea, syncope, or lightheadedness. Id. An echocardiogram revealed normal systolic function on both sides, and there was no interval progression of the pulmonic gradient. (Tr. 1253). Dr. Krasuski noted her symptoms were “in excess of the valvular stenosis” and referred Plaintiff for a pulmonary evaluation. (Tr. 1254).

         Plaintiff underwent a pulmonary evaluation in March 2014. (Tr. 763-65). Providers found normal airway and lung parenchymal structure and function. (Tr. 765). She had normal spirometry and “strongly normal” diffusion capacity, normal pulmonary perfusion, normal lung parenchyma, and normal alveolar capillary surface area for diffusion. Id.

         Plaintiff saw Dr. Krasuski again in August 2014. (Tr. 755-56). Plaintiff reported worsening chest discomfort, but Dr. Krasuski stated he did not believe her symptoms were primarily driven by her heart valves and would not recommend another surgery. (Tr. 756). He recommended she get a second opinion from cardiologist Gosta Pettersson, M.D. Id. Plaintiff met with Dr. Pettersson in November ...

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