A move by the Social Security Administration to end disability checks for hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky played a substantial role in two people killing themselves, a federal lawsuit filed this week charged.
The two, Melissa Jude and Leroy Burchett, were despondent after getting notice that they would lose benefits, the lawsuit said.
Burchett shot himself in the chin on June 1. Jude shot herself in the head the next day, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is part of the continued controversy related to allegations of disability fraud involving Eric C. Conn, who for years was one of the top disability lawyers in the nation.
Conn, whose office is in Floyd County, represented thousands of people in successful claims for federal benefits. He received $22.7 million in fees from 2001 to 2013 from Social Security for the work.
In 2013, a U.S. Senate investigation alleged that Conn’s firm had submitted medical evidence from doctors who did not properly examine some people and that Conn improperly colluded with a Social Security judge to get his claims approved.
Conn has denied any wrongdoing.
Last May, the Social Security Administration notified hundreds of Conn’s former clients that it would cut off their disability checks and redetermine their eligibility. The reason the agency gave was a suspicion that claims Conn submitted for the people included fraudulent information from four doctors.
The agency ultimately said it would redetermine whether nearly 1,800 people, most of them in Eastern Kentucky, should continue getting disability checks.
The news was a shock in the region, because disability income is a major piece of the economy.
According to the lawsuit filed this week, Jude received a letter May 18 saying her disability benefits would be suspended immediately.
Jude, judged disabled as a result of severe depression, became “suicidally despondent” when she realized her income would end, the lawsuit said.
The letter said Jude would have 10 days to gather medical records for a continued claim for disability.
Health care providers in Martin County told Jude it would take at least 30 days to get her records, according to the complaint.
After that, Jude, “believing that there was no reasonable likelihood of contesting the suspension of her benefits,” killed herself, the lawsuit said.
The complaint said Burchett also had suffered depression and mental illness. He received $1,063 a month from SSA.
After Burchett got the benefit suspension letter on May 22, he stopped taking his medicine, including anti-depressants, because of financial concerns, the lawsuit said.
The complaint said Burchett went into a “deep, dark depression.” After spending all day in bed May 31, he shot himself the next day.
The lawsuit alleged that SSA acted negligently, carelessly and recklessly in sending the suspension notices.
Notifying people that their benefits would be suspended before giving them a hearing, and imposing an “unconscionably short” period for them to assemble medical records, violated the rights of Jude, Burchett and others, the lawsuit alleged.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that it was “easily foreseeable” that sending out hundreds of immediate suspension letters to vulnerable people, many with mental disabilities, would lead to suicides.
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who prepared the lawsuit, said a third person faced with losing disability benefits committed suicide last summer, and two other suicides might have been related to the suspensions.
After a request by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the region, Social Security officials decided to continue people’s disability checks while redetermining their eligibility.
The decision came days after Burchett and Jude committed suicide.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Jude’s husband of 23 years, John Daniel Jude, and Burchett’s widow, Emma Burchett, and their estates.
The complaint seeks an unspecified amount of damages.
A spokesman for the Social Security Administration, William “BJ” Jarrett, said the agency couldn’t comment on the lawsuit but that officials were saddened to learn of the deaths and that the families “remain in our thoughts.”
The agency has said in a related court case that it has followed proper procedures in dealing with Conn’s former clients.