Friday, December 30, 2016

Hundreds in E. Ky. seek to keep federal disability benefits put at risk by fraud of lawyer and judge

Attorney Eric Conn advertised widely.
Hundreds of families in Eastern Kentucky are fighting to regain the disability benefits they lost after the federal government said their attorney and a federal administrative law judge awarded the benefits fraudulently. At least three suicides have been blamed on the unprecedented debacle, and the Social Security Administration is refusing to let the people see the medical evidence on which their disability determination was based, though it has acknowledged there is no evidence that they were "involved in the scheme," Claire Galofaro reports for The Associated Press.

About 900 former clients of lawyer Eric Conn of Stanville had their benefits cut off. The suicides spurred U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, to get the SSA "to allow Conn’s clients to keep their checks as they struggled in a series of hearings to prove they deserved them all along. The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a legal-aid organization in Eastern Kentucky, grew so worried they recruited the largest network of volunteer attorneys since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," Galofaro reports. "The band of 150 lawyers – some of the best disability attorneys in the nation – has become a sort grassroots suicide prevention network."
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"The government has good reason to ferret out disability fraud," Galofaro writes. "Critics call it a secret welfare program that morphed over the decades from serving the truly disabled to aiding the unemployable: the uneducated, the frail, the unfortunates who live in places where a rotting economy relies on back-breaking labor. Burgeoning claims – in Kentucky’s Floyd County [where Conn's practice was based] 15 percent are on disability – have pushed the disability fund to the brink of insolvency. The government has squeezed other programs for the poor, leaving many in these crumbling corners of blue-collar America with few good options. The mass suspensions laid bare their absolute dependence on disability."

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a physician who led a Senate investigation of Conn, sees "a broken system abused by those who don’t truly deserve it, yet grow dependent on government benefits," Galofaro reports. "They should have known better than to hire a 'shyster lawyer,' he said, and those who didn’t deserve benefits in the first place shouldn’t draw another dime. Government dependency, he believes, is the first step toward tyranny."

Coburn told Galofaro, “Do I feel sorry for them? Yes,” he said. “Do they have hardships? Yes. But do they meet the qualifications for Social Security Disability? Absolutely not. Here’s what the law says: if you can do any job in the economy you don’t qualify for disability. Rules have to mean something, and life isn’t fair.”

It certainly doesn't seem fair for disabled coal miner Tim Dye, the focal point of Galofaro's story, who has been told he could hold down a desk job. He and his wife, who said she nearly committed suicide, "wonder who would want to hire an old coal miner for a sit-down job, with nothing more than a high-school diploma, a crippled back and an eight-year gap on his résumé." Dye told Galofaro, “In a month or two, we won’t have nothing. We’re losing everything.”

The issue of access to medical evidence is in court. "U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar — on President-elect Donald Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court — issued an opinion last month that found a number of Conn’s clients were afforded fewer protections than suspected terrorists and ordered the Social Security Administration to reconsider its process," Galofaro notes. "But another federal judge sided with the agency. The question will now likely be settled by a federal appeals court." Ned Pillersdorf, the lawyer leading the legal-aid effort, has an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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