A federal magistrate judge has recommended that a new set of charges filed against a disability attorney who dubbed himself “Mr. Social Security” should go forward. But the real victims in the largest-ever Social Security disability fraud case are the attorney’s thousands of clients who now must prove that they are truly disabled.
As we have previously written, Eric Conn once ran the nation’s third-largest disability benefits practice. For years, the small town Kentucky attorney colluded with four doctors and an administrative law judge to obtain approvals for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits for thousands of people who may or may not have had qualifying disabilities. Conn received more than $5.7 million in fees from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for his role in the fraudulent claims
Conn pleaded guilty to defrauding the SSA of $550 million in benefits in April 2017, but fled to Mexico prior to his sentencing hearing. FBI agents caught Conn as he was leaving a Pizza Hut in Honduras last December.
As part of the original deal, Conn accepted a 12-year sentence on two charges and agreed to assist the government with subsequent prosecutions. But after his attempt to flee, Conn is being charged with another 18 counts stemming from his crimes, carrying a potential cumulative 255-year prison sentence.
Conn filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the basis that he complied with the guilty plea, an argument that U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier described as “preposterous,” according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
For Conn’s former clients, their trouble is just beginning.
In 2015, the SSA, without notice, suspended benefits for 900 former clients, prompting a flood of lawsuits. The SSA quickly reversed course, but subsequently held redetermination hearings for 1,500 beneficiaries. Only slightly more than half of those individuals were found eligible for continued benefits.
This past February, the SSA announced it would send notices to another nearly 2,000 beneficiaries previously represented by Conn, notifying them that they would have to defend their status in court. These individuals will have 30 days to gather new evidence to defend their claims, as well as hire attorneys. Benefits will continue during the redetermination process, which typically takes about a year.
“The real victims in this situation are the people who are, in fact, disabled that are now being put through this because of Conn’s fraud,” said Bruce Perrone, senior lawyer with Legal Aid of West Virginia.
During the first round of redetermination reviews, AppalRed Legal Aid mobilized volunteer attorneys nationwide to represent the beneficiaries, almost all of whom are unable to afford lawyers; 136 attorneys volunteered.
For more on efforts to assist with representing Conn’s former clients in Social Security disability redetermination hearings, click here.