Some of the former clients of disbarred attorney Eric C. Conn have plenty to say about how his fraudulent practices have changed their lives over the past few years.
More than 50 of his former clients turned out at a meeting on Tuesday to learn about a recent Court of Appeals decision that may help them get their disability benefits reinstated. The meeting, hosted by Prestonsburg Attorney Ned Pillersdorf, also featured information provided by attorney Evan Smith.
On Nov. 21, three U.S. Circuit judges issued what Pillersdorf refers to as the “Hicks decision,” in a case in which Garrett resident Amy Hicks was the lead client.
In that case, the Court of Appeals decided that the Social Security Administration violated the constitutional right to due process for Hicks and other former Conn clients by tossing out medical evidence that was used in their disability cases when Conn represented them.
Pillersdorf and other attorneys representing those clients asked that the court reinstate the benefits that were revoked from 800 people in 2015, but the Social Security Administration asked for a stay of that decision until the full Court of Appeals could consider the case. Last Friday, the Court of Appeals issued its ruling, turning down the SSA’s request for a rehearing.
Pillersdorf told former Conn clients who turned out for the meeting on Tuesday that the decision was a win for their cases.
He also reported that U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers has requested meeting with SSA officials in Washington DC about the case.
“We got really good news Friday. I think the SSA is about out of moves, except with the U.S. Supreme Court,” Pillersdorf said, explaining that if the SSA appeals the decision, the process could take time.
Smith told the group that they’re “very much in uncharted waters” with a lot of the legal issues raised in these cases.
“I can’t answer every single question you all are going to have because for a lot of your questions, there simply isn’t an answer right now, but, as Ned said, we are in better shape now than we’ve been at any point over the past four years, legally speaking,” Smith said. “Now, I know for a lot of you all, when you look at your checking account, if you even still have a checking account, you don’t feel better off now than you did four years ago. We feel your pain, and our number one priority is to figure out how to get benefits back to everyone that we can as quickly as we can, but also want to do it in a way that ends this, that means that this doesn’t drag out for years more.”
He asked meeting attendees to “be patient.”
That was a tough request for Hindman resident Cheryl Johnson.
“I’m just tired of it,” she said. “I’m just fed up with everything.”
She initially received disability benefits in 2008 and she and her husband have been living off his monthly disability check since she lost her benefits in 2015. She said they had a truck repossessed and struggle to buy food and make house payments.
“You can’t get what you need, half the time, and it’s just awful,” she said. “You lose things. You get things repossessed … It’s hard. It’s just hard. They was so wrong. They get paid big money and they were so wrong and if they had to go through this, they’d see what it’s like.”
Knott County resident Ronald Dyer, 36, said losing his disability has nearly ruined his life.
“It’s pretty hurtful. I’ve lost everything I own,” he said. “Everything. My car, my home. I’ve been jailed several times because I couldn’t pay my child support. It’s over nothing, you know, something that wasn’t my fault.”
Dyer was put on disability a year after being involved in an ATV wreck that killed his brother-in-law in 2006. Dyer was hospitalized for a month after that wreck and underwent numerous surgeries in which metal rods, wires and plates were used to reconstruct his face, leg and other areas.
He now lives with his parents in Knott County and caught a ride from a friend to attend the meeting.
“I have no other choice unless it’s under a bridge,” he said. “It’s depressing. It’s took everything in me out. It’s hard getting something saying you owe $78,000, you know, or they’re going to sue you for it, and they’re going to take everything. I’ve even tried to go back to work. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t possible. So now, I’m struggling, living day to day trying to make ends meet.”
Salyersville resident Jimmy Lemaster, 42, also lost his home and vehicle after losing his benefits in May 2015. He said the stress led to his divorce, and, after the divorce, he lost his home because he couldn’t pay the mortgage. He said he was awarded custody of his son in the divorce, but lost that custody after he lost his home.
“I was just living from here to there,” he said.
He moved in with his father until he was awarded disability benefits again.
Lemaster said received disability because of Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and he tried to return to work after his benefits were cut off, but the work caused him to have more surgery.
Lemaster said he went through the rehearing process and was awarded disability again, but this time, they gave him SSI benefits, which was less than the Social Security disability he previously received.
Before his benefits were revoked, he said his check totaled $1,760, now, it’s about $733 a month.
“For the last year, I’ve been living off $733 a month, so I rent a place now,” he said.
At the meeting, several former Conn clients asked if there’s a possibility of suing the SSA. The attorneys told them the government has immunity and can’t be sued.
Pillersdorf explained, however, that a case is pending in Floyd Circuit Court against Conn’s malpractice insurance company.