LOUISVILLE, Ky. — People stripped of Social Security disability benefits after their attorney was charged with defrauding the government gained some hope Wednesday when a judge in Kentucky ruled that the government used an unconstitutional process to reconsider their status.
The Social Security Administration has been reviewing the eligibility of about 1,500 people who secured disability payments while being represented by Eric C. Conn, a flamboyant eastern Kentucky attorney who gained the nickname “Mr. Social Security.” Those reviews are fallout from charges against Conn, who is accused of conspiring to defraud the government of $600 million in federal disability payments.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar ruled that the Social Security Administration violated the due-process rights of a woman — once represented by Conn — who had her approximately $800-per-month benefits canceled after her case was reviewed.
Thapar said that Amy Jo Hicks was wrongly denied the right to challenge how the government redetermined her eligibility for disability payments. In doing so, the eastern Kentucky woman was denied basic rights given terror suspects, the judge said.
“If the government threw Amy Jo Hicks in jail because she was a member of al Qaeda, she would get a chance to challenge that factual assertion before a neutral arbiter,” Thapar wrote in his 33-page order. “If the government fired her because she lied on an employment form, she would get a chance to challenge that factual assertion before a neutral arbiter.
“…But when the government redetermined her right to disability payments — and categorically excluded some of her medical evidence because it had ‘reason to believe’ the evidence was fraudulent — she never got a chance to challenge that factual assertion before anyone.”
Thapar remanded the case with instructions that Hicks receive an “adequate process” in seeking to regain her benefits.
Hicks’ attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, said he hoped her case would have broader implications by helping others reclaim disability payments.
“Logically it should,” he said. “Legally, it doesn’t have to. It is wonderful precedent. Does it bind the other judges? No.
“I’m hoping that the SSA will now finally acknowledge how unfair these hearings are,” he added.
A Social Security Administration spokeswoman declined comment Wednesday, referring questions to the Justice Department, which did immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Thapar noted in his order that SSA has held about 1,400 so-called redetermination hearings for Conn’s ex-clients. About half lost their benefits. Many of them, including Hicks, have sued the SSA in federal court. Those cases are being heard by various judges.
In Conn’s case, prosecutors claim he raked in millions of dollars by paying a doctor and a judge to rubber-stamp false disability claims using phony medical evidence. He opened his law practice in a trailer in his hometown of Stanville, Kentucky, building it into one of the nation’s most lucrative disability firms. His clients mostly came from eastern Kentucky and portions of neighboring West Virginia.
In his ruling, Thapar noted that SSA will not look at any part of a person’s original application for benefits when its inspector general’s office deems it to contain fraud. According to SSA’s internal regulations, administrative law judges presiding at redetermination hearings “must simply pretend that the evidence no longer exists,” the judge said. Nor can a beneficiary appeal the SSA’s decision to disregard such evidence when the inspector general’s office flagged the evidence as fraudulent, he said.
Faced with such constraints, Hicks “was left without much evidence at all” in her case, the judge said.
“Yes, Hicks got a hearing,” he said before referencing the movie, “Back to the Future.” ”But she might as well have arrived in a DeLorean. It was a hearing about the past. Like Marty McFly, the SSA had the power to change the past — specifically, to act as if Hicks had never submitted medical evidence from any of Conn’s doctors, causing the main support for her claim to disappear.”
Pillersdorf said the SSA set up a “shameful process” that led to hundreds of people losing benefits.
“They have targeted the most vulnerable people, in the most economically vulnerable area of this nation,” he said.