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Liggins v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 17, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ARLANDER KEYS, Magistrate Judge.

This case is before the Court on Kenneth Liggins' motion for summary judgment. Mr. Liggins seeks a remand or an outright reversal of the Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Commissioner seeks summary judgment affirming the decision to deny benefits. For the reasons set forth below, Mr. Liggins' motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.


On March 2, 2010, Kenneth Liggins filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging that he became disabled as of September 30, 2009. The Social Security Administration denied his application initially and on reconsideration. Thereafter, Mr. Liggins requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the case was assigned to ALJ Jose Anglada, who held a hearing in Mr. Liggins' case on June 8, 2011.

At the hearing on June 8, 2011, the ALJ heard from Mr. Liggins, who appeared with representation, and from Dr. Richard Hamersma, who testified as a Vocational Expert. Mr. Liggins testified that he was born March 23, 1958, Record at 50, and has two children, ages 24 and 26, Record at 52. He testified that he went to a year and a few months of college, but didn't finish. Record at 73. He testified that he had been homeless but living in Minneapolis, and that, about two years prior to the hearing, his sister-in-law sent him a bus ticket to Chicago; since then, he has lived with her, her husband and their two children. Record at 52-54.

Mr. Liggins testified that, after moving to Chicago, he looked for a job but "was getting too ill." Record at 59. He testified that, when it gets "real, real cold, I get arthritis real bad. My hands swell up. My legs, I couldn't hardly move them." Record at 59. He also testified that, when the weather changes "my elements just kept coming up though. You know, my legs are real bad now. I can't hardly walk. I need a cane to stand up properly. I can't stand too long." Record at 59.

He testified that he has arthritis in his knees. Record at 59. And that his left knee is worse that the right knee. Record at 60. He testified that he had four hydrotherapy sessions in Minnesota in 2009, but has not had any therapy since coming to Chicago. Record at 60-61. He testified that he has seen a doctor and is taking medication. Record at 61. When asked whether the medication helps, Mr. Liggins testified that "it leaves the pain and stuff. You know, when I sleep, I wake up a lot, you know, because my legs be crossing, and I can't sleep comfortable like that. I have to sleep on the floor with my legs extended up." Record at 61. He testified that he takes his medication every day, no matter how he feels; he testified that he took his medication the morning of the hearing and that, as a result, at the time of the hearing "I feel all right." Record at 62. With regard to side effects, Mr. Liggins testified that sometimes the medication makes him "a little dizzy" and "makes my hands shake, you know, real bad a lot." Record at 62.

Mr. Liggins testified that he has been treated for arthritis only, but that his back has also been bothering him and causing him pain. Record at 65. He testified that he had some testing done, but that his doctor has not yet determined what the problem is with his back. Record at 65. Mr. Liggins also testified that his doctor in Minnesota prescribed the use of a cane for mobility; he testified that the cane helps him keep his balance. Record at 62-63.

Mr. Liggins testified that he had a stroke about 15 years prior to the hearing. Record at 66. He testified that the stroke mostly affected his face and his legs. Record at 66. He testified that, after his stroke, his left side sometimes goes numb. He testified "[w]hen I sleep, I can't sleep on my left side. I have to sleep on my right side to try to shift it and raise my left leg up. But other than that, I don't have too many problems." Record at 81. He testified that he is able to grip his cane with his right hand, which is his dominant hand. Record at 81.

Mr. Liggins testified that he receives regular treatment at Cook County Hospital in Oak Forest. Record at 67-68. He testified that he was hospitalized once for leg cramps for about three days some time in 2008, 2009 or 2010. Record at 70-71. Mr. Liggins did not remember exactly when he was hospitalized; nor could he remember the name of his regular treating physician at Oak Forest Hospital. Record at 70-71. He testified that he has never been referred for any kind of psychological evaluation, that he does not take any medication for depression or any other mental impairment. Record at 82.

With regard to his daily activities, Mr. Liggins testified that he sits around, and if the weather is nice, he tries to make it up the steps to sit on the porch; he testified that he also tries to help his brother-in-law around the house. Record at 71. He testified that he tries to straighten up his area of the house, but is unable to help with chores. Record at 71. He testified that he watches a little tv, but doesn't read. Record at 72-73. He testified that he used to play football, and that he played wide receiver for a semi-pro team; he testified that he is no longer able to play. Record at 74. He testified that he sometimes tries to walk down the street, but then he has to stop, find a shade tree and wait a few minutes before he can walk back. Record at 76. He testified that he "can't walk too far." Record at 76. He testified that, with the cane, he can probably walk a block or a block and a half; without it, he could maybe walk half a block before stumbling. Record at 77. He testified that he can stand for about 15 to 20 minutes, and that he can sit for half an hour. Record at 78. He testified that he could lift and carry 5 or 10 lbs., that he cannot lift groceries or pour orange juice with his left hand. Record at 78.

With regard to his employment history, Mr. Liggins testified that he formerly did maintenance work, fixing conveyor belts in a warehouse. Record at 54-55. He testified that the work was full-time, but obtained through a temp agency; he testified that he was on that job for about two and a half or three years. Record at 55-56. He testified that he also worked at Nino's for a couple of years making pizza. Record at 56-57. He testified that he last worked at a car wash in Minnesota in 2008 or 2009. Record at 58. He testified that the car wash job was part-time and that, when it ended, he moved to Chicago. Record at 58. He testified that his job at the car wash mostly involved drying off cars, working with a team of others to dry the cars. Record at 80-81.

The Vocational Expert testified that he had listened to Mr. Liggins' testimony and reviewed the exhibits filed in the case, and that he was familiar with the jobs Mr. Liggins held in the past. Record at 82-83. The VE testified that he would characterize Mr. Liggins' past job in the warehouse, setting up belts, as a "material handler" and his past job making pizzas as a "food prep worker." Record at 83-84. The ALJ then asked the VE to consider a hypothetical claimant who was "closely approaching advance aged with a greater than high school education and past relevant work as [a material handler and food prep worker], " who could "lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and can be on his feet, standing and walking about six hours in an eight-hour work day and sit about six hours with, normal rest periods"; is "unable to work at heights, climb ladders or frequently negotiate stairs"; "may only occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl and may be expected to be off task about 5 percent of the time in an eight-hour work day due to pain and discomfort." Record at 85.

The VE testified that this person would be precluded from working as a material handler, but could still work in food prep. Record at 85. The VE testified that, if the hypothetical claimant needed a cane to ambulate, he would be precluded from working either job. Record at 85. The VE testified that, even with the cane, other jobs would be feasible; for example, the VE testified, this hypothetical claimant could perform some light, unskilled work jobs, done in what is basically a sedentary position, including jobs in inspection (DOT #727.687-054; 2, 000 jobs); and hand packager (DOT #559.687-074; 7, 000 jobs). Record at 85-86. The VE testified that these jobs were consistent with the DOT. Record at 86. The VE testified that the claimant could do these jobs even if he required the use of a cane to ambulate and even if he could not be on his feet, standing and walking, for more than four hours in an eight-hour work day. Record at 86.

Next, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an "Arthritis/Pain Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire completed May 3, 2011 by Dr. Rubin at Oak Forest Ambulatory Health Center. See Record at 337-339. After one visit, Dr. Rubin diagnosed Mr. Liggins with osteo-arthritis in the knees, as well as other conditions, and she rated his prognosis as "fair"; she noted that he had reduced range of motion in his knees, joint instability, abnormal posture, tenderness, muscle spasms, abnormal gait and impaired sleep. Record at 337. According to Dr. Rubin, Mr. Liggins' symptoms would frequently impair his ability to perform even simple work tasks; she thought he could sit just 5 minutes at one time before needing to move and that he could stand for just 5 minutes before he needed to sit down; she opined that he could sit, stand and walk for less than 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; she also noted that he could not tolerate prolonged sitting. Record at 338. Finally, she opined that he could never carry any weight (even less than 10 lbs.), that he had significant limitations in doing repetitive reaching, handling and fingering, and that his impairments would likely cause him to miss more than 4 days of work per month. Record at 339. Based upon this assessment, the VE testified, Mr. Liggins would be precluded from working in any job. Record at 87. The VE also testified that, if the claimant could not lift more than 10 pounds, he would be unable to do any job at the light level, even if it were typically performed in a sedentary position. Record at 88.

In addition to the testimony described above, the ALJ considered a variety of medical records. Records from the Hennepin County Medical Center ("HCMC") in Minneapolis, show that Mr. Liggins was treated there for his post-stroke symptoms. In November 2008, Mr. Liggins had at least five physical therapy sessions in the pool. Record at 274. On December 17, 2008, Mr. Liggins visited the HCMC's walk-in clinic complaining of back pain and leg pain; the doctor who saw him, Dr. Heidi Coplin, noted that his pain was likely related to changes in his posture as a result of his stroke. Record at 231, 286. Dr. Coplin recommended that he continue his physical therapy sessions, use ibuprofen and warm packs and return if his symptoms worsened or failed to improve. Record at 231.

On January 14, 2009, Mr. Liggins saw Dr. Gregory English, DO, complaining of back pain. Dr. English advised him to return in about 8 weeks. Record at 229. He was seen at HCMC several times in January 2009, both in the walk-in clinic and in the internal medicine department. He complained of back and leg pain and requested pool therapy; he also complained about right side chest pain associated with arm movement. Record at 236, 237.

On January 21, 2009, Mr. Liggins reported to the Hennepin County medical clinic for a scheduled nurse visit; at that time he denied any dizziness, chest pain or shortness of breath and reported that he was taking his medications as prescribed; the nurse, in consult with Dr. English, recommended that he continue his present medication and return to Dr. English as scheduled. Record at 283.

A medical opinion form signed by Dr. English on what looks to be January 15, 2009, indicates a diagnosis of "stroke w/residual ambulation limitations pain." as well as "depression from stroke." Record at 272. Additionally, Dr. English checked the box for "yes" ...

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