A Floyd County attorney at the center of a controversy over Eastern Kentucky disability cases committed unethical and fraudulent acts in representing hundreds of people, two former clients charged in a lawsuit filed Friday.
Cheryl J. Martin and Robert Q. Martin, both former clients Eric C. Conn, are seeking class-action status for the complaint, which would allow hundreds of others to join the lawsuit against Conn.
About 900 former clients of Conn recently received notices from the Social Security Administration that their disability payments had been suspended because of suspicion that the cases Conn submitted for them included fraudulent information from four doctors.
Cheryl J. Martin, 65, is battling advanced lung cancer but will have to cut back on her medication if she loses her $1,100 monthly disability check, according to an affidavit with the lawsuit.
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The complaint, prepared by Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, charges that Conn's fraud and malpractice behavior has cost the plaintiffs and others their livelihoods.
The action seeks an unspecified amount of compensation for them, damages to punish Conn and attorney fees.
The suit was the latest development in a controversy that has mushroomed this week in Eastern Kentucky, where Conn represented hundreds of people seeking disability.
"Mr. Conn helped all of these people," J. Kent Wicker, Conn's lawyer, said Friday in response to the lawsuit. "They deserved benefits, and he helped them get the benefits they were entitled to. They should be angry at the Social Security Administation."
Also Friday, Republican U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers and Evan Jenkins sent a letter to the head of the Social Security Administration seeking more time for people affected by the suspensions to submit evidence in order to keep their benefits.
On another front, a legal aid group in Eastern Kentucky is urging hundreds of people who are facing an immediate suspension of their federal disability benefits to quickly apply for an extension of time to provide new medical evidence of their disability.
Appalachian Research and Defense Fund said Friday that it can provide the form needed to apply for an extension and will attempt to provide a free attorney for people who lose their disability benefits.
About 1,200 Kentucky residents who had Conn as their attorney are facing a review by the Social Security Administration because the decision to award them benefits was based on suspected fraudulent information.
There are two programs at issue in the mass re-determination process. One is Social Security Disability Insurance, which covers people who have worked and paid into the system before becoming disabled. The other is Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which is for people who are disabled — including children — and have little or no work history, income or resources.
Benefits for those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance have been suspended during the review process. Those receiving SSI will continue to receive benefits during the review.
Those under review have been given 10 days to supply medical evidence supporting their claim that they were disabled at the time they were awarded benefits.
"Ten days, out of the blue, 10 days for people to try and to get medical records ... that's not a significant amount of time," said AppalReD executive director Robert Johns. "That's tough."
AppalReD will do its best to find representation for those who seek help, but "we can't possibly handle everything," Johns said.
The agency is recruiting private attorneys to help provide voluntary representation for those affected.
AppalReD will also help people sign up for Medicaid or other coverage programs if they lose health insurance because of the review.
Johns said about 150 people have already asked the group for help, and they're expecting many more.
"We expect hundreds of people who may need lawyers," Johns said.
The group provides free legal help in civil cases in 37 counties in Eastern and South Central Kentucky for people who cannot afford an attorney. Those who need AppalReD's help can call 1-866-277-5733.
The agency advised people to continue following the directions on their notices and to send in their medical records as soon as possible, even if they get an extension.
A U.S. Senate committee investigation alleged that Conn's law firm provided medical reports that doctors signed without properly examining the patients, and that Conn worked with a Social Security judge who gave benefits without proper scrutiny.
Conn received $22.7 million from 2001 to 2013 from the Social Security Administration for representing claimants, according to the Senate report.