A multistate law firm has stepped into the effort to represent hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky facing the potential loss of their Social Security disability payments.
Morgan & Morgan, PA, which has offices in Kentucky and several other states, announced its decision Friday.
The firm, which has a large Social Security practice involving more than 20 lawyers, is prepared to take several hundred clients without charge if necessary, officials said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who works for the law firm, said founder John Morgan only recently became aware of the effort to find lawyers for 1,500 people who face a re-determination of their benefits, and wanted to help.
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"He feels like these folks need us, which they do," Stumbo said.
Michael Reese, who heads Social Security work for Morgan & Morgan, said the firm would bring in lawyers from its offices in other states to help with the workload.
In addition to Kentucky, Morgan's firm has offices in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, New York and Pennsylvania. It is best known for representing people in personal-injury cases.
The need to find lawyers for a lot of people quickly arose when the Social Security Administration notified 900 people in May that it planned to suspend their disability checks while making a new determination of whether they were eligible.
The cases can be complex. People seeking benefits typically get lawyers to help them.
Floyd County attorney Eric C. Conn had represented all the people in earlier appeals in which they won benefits.
Social Security said the reason for the mass suspension was suspicion that the claims Conn submitted for the people included fraudulent information from four doctors Conn used to supply information justifying claims.
The agency notified 600 other people that their eligibility also is under review, but it didn't suspend their payments right away because they receive a different form of disability benefit.
Most of the people who got re-determination letters live in Eastern Kentucky. Many have little or no other income, so the prospect of losing their checks set off a panic.
Two people who received letters killed themselves because they were despondent, and others have threatened suicide, said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who represents people in the case.
After the two suicides, the head of Social Security decided to reinstate benefits for the 900 people at the urging of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.
They will continue getting checks until the agency makes new decisions in their cases.
Pillersdorf, the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky and others have been scrambling in recent weeks to find lawyers for the hundreds of people who must convince Social Security they deserve to keep getting benefits.
Morgan & Morgan said former clients of Conn who now face re-determination of their benefits can call (866) 621-3216 to request assistance.
Before the announcement by Morgan & Morgan Friday, Pillersdorf said about 80 lawyers had volunteered to take cases — far short of the number he feels is needed because of the potential complexity and workload in each case.
Many of the attorneys who have volunteered don't have experience in federal disability cases and will require some training, he said.
Pillersdorf said he was glad to see the Morgan firm's commitment.
Still, he said there is a concern about getting experienced attorneys for all the people who need them, and also about difficulties the people face in rounding up medical records.
Social Security has said it plans to hold more than 1,400 hearings between September and the end of the year, Pillersdorf said.
He has asked a federal judge to delay the hearings, arguing it would violate people's rights otherwise because they would not have time to adequately prepare to argue their case for benefits.
Pillersdorf has been harshly critical of the decision by Social Security to re-determine people's eligibility even though there is no evidence they committed fraud.
"Never have so many economically-vulnerable people, in one of the most economically-distressed areas of our nation, had to endure as much turmoil, economic uncertainty, suicides and distress" as the people who face re-determination, he said in a court motion.
The agency has said Congress requires it to immediately re-determine someone's eligibility if there is reason to believe fraud was involved in the application for benefits.
It also said that while beneficiaries face one timetable for submitting evidence to an appeals council, they would have additional time later to give information to judges if the council rules a hearing is required.
A U.S. Senate investigation alleged in 2013 that Conn and his firm submitted medical evidence from doctors who did not properly examine some claimants.
The Senate report also alleged that Conn improperly colluded with Social Security Judge David B. Daugherty, who rubber-stamped benefits for Conn's clients with little scrutiny.
Conn and Daugherty have denied any wrongdoing.
Pillersdorf filed wrongful-death lawsuits against Conn for survivors to the two disability beneficiaries who shot themselves after being told their benefits would be suspended. The two were Leroy Burchett of Floyd County and Melissa Jude of Martin County.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit related to Burchett's death, saying Conn could not have foreseen such a result.
Pillersdorf said Friday he had asked the judge to set aside the decision.
Jude's case is still pending, he said.