A federal judge has denied a request to block hearings on whether hundreds of Eastern Kentucky residents will keep federal disability benefits.
The people pursuing an injunction against the hearings must complete their cases through the Social Security Administration before challenging the agency in federal court, U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar ruled.
Thapar said his court has no jurisdiction at this point to intervene in Social Security’s decision to re-determine if nearly 1,800 people are eligible for disability checks. He dismissed the request for an injunction.
An attorney representing disability beneficiaries filed a motion Friday asking Thapar to change his decision and halt the hearings during a continued challenge in his court, or to stop the hearings while a higher court hears an appeal of the ruling.
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Most of the people involved in the cases don’t yet have attorneys to help them with the complex job of establishing their eligibility, and recipients face difficulties in getting medical records to help prove claims, said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf
“If the hearings proceed, my prediction is that 1,500 will lose benefits, with catastrophic consequences for this region,” Pillersdorf said. “It’s punitive against some of the most vulnerable people around here.”
Many of the people who face the potential loss of their benefits have no other income.
Social Security has already started the re-determination hearings.
The controversy involves cases handled by Eric C. Conn, a Floyd County attorney.
For years, Conn was one of the top-paid attorneys in the country in federal disability cases, winning benefits for thousands of people. He received $22.7 million between 2001 and 2013 from Social Security to represent claimants, according to a 2013 U.S. Senate report.
In May, however, Social Security notified many of Conn’s former clients it would re-determine whether they are really eligible for benefits.
The agency said there was reason to believe some cases Conn’s firm handled included fraudulent information from four doctors. The agency has barred the use of medical evidence from the four during the process of deciding if people can keep their benefits.
A 2013 U.S. Senate investigation alleged that Conn wrote medical reports and paid doctors to sign them — rather than have the doctors do real exams — and colluded with a Social Security judge who rubber-stamped benefits for Conn’s clients at a rate far higher than other judges.
Pillersdorf said in a court motion there is a federal criminal investigation underway.
Subjecting almost 1,800 impoverished and arguably disabled individuals to complex hearings, in which most will either default, incompetently represent themselves, or lose due to the flawed nature of the hearings, constitutes irreparable harm on a mass scale.
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf
Conn has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney has said Conn represented clients honestly and well, and that the government closed an earlier investigation without charging him.
Most of the 1,800 beneficiaries who face re-determination of their eligibility are from Eastern Kentucky, where disability income is a significant piece of the economy.
Attorneys for some argued that Social Security violated its own rules on how to reopen cases, and set up such a tight timetable for the hearings that people wouldn’t be able to get evidence they needed or lawyers to help them, an effective denial of their rights.
Attorneys wanted people to be able to challenge the finding of fraud — and whether it was proper to reopen cases — during the appeal process within Social Security, instead of having to wait for the agency to make a decision and then challenge benefit denials in federal court.
That process could leave people without payments for some time even if they ultimately win in court.
The Social Security Administration said it has acted properly and provided adequate time for people get ready for re-determination hearings. The agency also set up a liberal process on submitting evidence, its attorney said in a motion.
Thapar said in his decision that during the hearings on their eligibility, people can challenge Social Security’s determination that fraud might have been involved in their application for benefits.
However, Pillersdorf said in a motion that Thapar “misunderstood the substance” of the hearings.
Social Security officials are not allowing any challenge to the allegations of fraud during the hearings, Pillersdorf said.
Pillersdorf said in the motion that “subjecting almost 1,800 impoverished and arguably disabled individuals to complex hearings, in which most will either default, incompetently represent themselves, or lose due to the flawed nature of the hearings, constitutes irreparable harm on a mass scale.”