Former clients of disbarred attorney Eric Conn get reprieve from disability hearings

Hundreds of Eastern Kentucky residents will get a reprieve from hearings to determine if they can keep receiving federal disability payments, and may have more evidence to use when the hearings resume.

The Social Security Administration this week notified attorneys for the people that it would suspend the hearings for 60 days, until Jan. 7.

Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers also confirmed the agency would put off the hearings for two months.

The decision came after Rogers contacted Social Security about a concern over the agency going ahead with the hearings even though many of the beneficiaries hadn’t yet received files which could contain medical evidence to use in establishing their eligibility for benefits.

Rogers “was prompted to intervene to ensure Eastern Kentuckians in this case are treated fairly during re-determination hearings for their benefits,” his office said in a statement.

The issue relates to a massive fraud involving Eric C. Conn, an attorney who represented thousands of Eastern Kentucky residents in successful claims for disability benefits.

Conn, who lived in Pikeville and had an office in Floyd County, ultimately admitted he put faked evidence in clients’ files.

Conn and staffers filled out physical and mental evaluations that medical professionals signed without doing adequate examinations, and Conn paid bribes to a Social Security judge who approved claims.

Conn is serving a 27-year prison sentence.

The problem for many of his former clients is that Social Security re-determines a person’s eligibility for disability benefits if there is reason to believe fraud was involved in a claim, and disallows suspected bogus evidence.

The the agency has moved to re-determine the eligibility of about 3,700 people.

In the first round of about 1,800, about 800 lost benefits, though many have appealed. Attorneys have argued that Conn’s clients did not know he was using fake evidence in their cases.

The agency started on a second round of hearings for more than 1,900 people in August.

The cases took a new turn earlier this year when it came to light that there were 6,000 to 7,000 files on Conn’s clients at his old office in Floyd County, which he had agreed to forfeit to the government as part of his plea agreement.

Conn’s employees had told former clients their files were not available at his office, said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who has represented many of the people in trying to keep their disability benefits.

The files are important because they may contain evidence that Conn’s former clients could use in trying to establish their eligibility for benefits.

The hearings require people to show they were disabled at the time they originally were awarded benefits, which is more than a decade ago in some cases, Pillersdorf said.

“This takes a lot of pressure off of everybody,” Pillersdorf said of the decision to suspend the hearings.

Pillersdorf and other volunteers representing Conn’s former clients had asked Social Security to stop holding re-determination hearings until they could retrieve and review the old files, but said agency judges refused.

A judge appointed receivers to take control of Conn’s files and set up a way to get them to former clients, but Pillersdorf said the receivers told him files wouldn’t be available until after Dec. 1 even as Social Security continued a dozen or more re-determination hearings a week.

Pillersdorf asked Rogers’ office to get involved.

Roger’s office said in a statement that he “applauds the SSA for providing more time for local attorneys to review the client files for these critical hearings.”

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Eric Conn was escorted by SWAT team agents prior to his extradition, at the Toncontin International Airport, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. Conn, a fugitive Kentucky lawyer who escaped before facing sentencing for his central role in a massive Social Security fraud case, was captured as he came out of a Pizza Hut in the coastal city of La Ceiba. Moises Castillo AP