Crisis in Kentucky: A Call for Help

We have a representational crisis here in eastern Kentucky. In several Appalachian counties, and less so in West Virginia, about 1500 recipients of Social Security Disability benefits – 900 in the SSD program (based on work quarters) and 600 who receive SSI  – are all threatened with the loss of their benefits at upcoming hearings.

Why? Because they all went to the same lawyer, Eric Conn, who practices in Floyd County. SSA claims that, based on an Inspector General’s Report, Conn, in collusion with an Administrative Law Judge and four doctors, rigged the system to create an assembly line for approving the claims so that SSA had “reason to believe” that the applications for benefits were based on fraud and that the claims should be “redetermined.”

The Wall Street Journal and Sixty Minutes featured programs on Mr. Conn and this situation two or three years ago, and a Senate Committee issued a Report in 2013, which highlighted the situation.

There is no evidence any of the clients were involved in the fraud. To make things more difficult for the recipients, SSA has determined that the reports of the doctors involved cannot be considered in the redetermination, and that this is not subject to challenge. (This decision is the subject of a pending federal court action.) So, these folks are now supposed to prove from other medical reports that they might gather that they were disabled six to eight years ago in order to keep their benefits.

Hence, the call for pro bono lawyers. There are no provisions for attorney fees for representation at these hearings, which are being scheduled beginning this month. (There is an expectation that there will be many issues on appeal, and potentially, if the client wins in federal court, EAJA attorney fees could be forthcoming-years away.)

The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of KY., Inc. (Appalred) is coordinating a massive recruitment campaign for pro bono attorneys. Because we learned from SSA that it is possible for a lawyer in a distant location to represent the client via a video terminal in a local SSA office, we are recruiting nationwide with the help of the National Organization of Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). We recognize that it is preferable to have in person representation, but because of the relatively few number of lawyers practicing Social Security law in eastern Kentucky, and the distance factors, the video solution seems to be the only solution in many cases. To date, we have had over 100 lawyers from around the country who have volunteered to take cases, a couple of firms taking 100 or more. Recently, we sponsored a training for lawyers who had not done Social Security cases and who wanted to volunteer. The training will be on line on the Appalred website, along with the excellent materials that were provided.

The threatened loss of these benefits is a traumatic issue for many of the recipients. To date we have had three, and possibly a fourth suicide linked directly to the cut off notices. For many of these clients, the SSA benefits are the only source of income. The persons who have come to several public meetings we have had are older and are typical of disabled persons. They are not 20 and 30 year olds who one might think should be working. There likely will be some persons who might have gone to Conn because they heard he could get them the benefits regardless of their ability to work but probably not many.

Please pass the word. Interested lawyers should contact Appalred’s pro bono coordinator, Mary Going at maryg@ardfky.org or 1-800-678-8525, Ext. 1315.

John Rosenberg is Director Emeritus of Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Ky, Inc. (“Appalred”), in Prestonsburg, KY and a former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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