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Veterans Law

Court Overturns Board Denial of Service Connection for Heart Condition

March 14, 2022
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Summary of the Case

The Veteran served in the United States Army from May 1980 to October 1987 and from March 1988 to October 1989 as a power generation equipment repairer and a fire support specialist.

In an April 12, 1981 clinical report, the Veteran reported midsternal chest pain, which he described as “sometimes sharp and sometimes dull.”  In an August 1987 emergency care visit, he again reported the chest pain.  He underwent an electrocardiogram (EKG) and chest x-rays which identified his chest pain as non-cardiac related.

In October 2016, the Veteran filed a claim for hearing loss due to his in-service position as a generator mechanic.  According to him, the noise from the generators consistently penetrated his Army-provided hearing protection.  In a November 2016 rating decision, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) granted service connection for tinnitus at a 10 percent rate but denied service connection for hearing loss.

The Veteran filed a Notice of Disagreement based on this decision in December 2016, requesting reconsideration of his hearing loss claim and a higher rating for tinnitus.  He also submitted an additional claim for sinus node dysfunction status-post pacemaker placement, a heart condition, in February 2017.

Based on the results of a June 2017 Compensation and Pension (C&P) exam, VA denied service connection for his heart condition.  The Veteran filed a Notice of Disagreement for this decision as well.

Board Denies Service Connection for Heart Condition and Increased Rating for Tinnitus

In a May 2019 decision, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) denied service connection for his heart disorder, asserting that there was no evidence of his condition during service or for many years after.  The Board noted that even though complaints of chest pain during his service existed on the record, in-service imaging and EKG testing failed to reveal a heart disorder at that time.

The Board also denied the Veteran a higher disability rating for tinnitus.

CCK Argues Inadequate Reasoning in Board Decision

Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD represented the Veteran before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC or Court) on March 31, 2021.

CCK advanced two arguments in respect to the Veteran’s heart disorder.  First, CCK argued that the Veteran’s heart disorder was etiologically related to his in-service complaints of chest pain.  The Veteran had a current diagnosis of sinus node dysfunction and his in-service treatment records reflected his complaints of chest pain, suggesting a link between the two.

According to CCK, the Board provided insufficient reasoning for concluding that the in-service complaints were not connected to his heart disorder, as service connection does not require an in-service diagnosis.

Second, CCK contended that the June 2017 VA examination addressing his in-service electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure and its relation to his current heart condition is inadequate.  According to CCK, the examiner did not also address whether the heart disorder was related to the Veteran’s in-service complaints.

Regarding the issue of a higher rating for tinnitus, CCK argued that the Board did not discuss the November 2016 VA examination in which the Veteran stated that his tinnitus awakens him two to three times a night and causes headaches.  The Board did not address if these issues warranted separate ratings.

Court Agrees with CCK, Overturns Board Decision

The Court agreed with CCK’s assertions in all matters.  First, the Court stated that the Board was incorrect in favoring the lack of an in-service heart condition diagnosis instead of considering the in-service evidence of chest pain.  The Board also did not offer an adequate reason for relying on the June 2017 VA medical opinion.

The Court also agreed that the Board should have addressed the issues raised by the record regarding the Veteran’s tinnitus.  The Court asserted that VA had a duty to maximize benefits and exhaust all schedular alternatives.

Based on CCK’s arguments, the Court vacated the Board’s May 2019 decision in its entirety.  The matter was remanded back to the Board for further proceedings.