By Jeffrey Jiang, JD ’22
via LSC Blog

The story of Eric Conn is a years-long saga involving a scam artist who extracted over half a billion dollars from the U.S. government, an administrative law judge (ALJ) who covered for him, and a frantic flight to Mexico followed by an arrest in a Pizza Hut in La Ceiba, Honduras.[1]

Social security disability insurance (SSDI) is a government program that provides crucial benefits payments to those living with significant disability. To qualify for these payments, applicants must meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) stringent definition of disability. In eastern Kentucky, attorney and fraudster Eric Conn catered specifically to clients seeking SSDI; he billed himself as “Mr. Social Security” and specialized in SSDI benefits cases. Unfortunately, for thousands of his vulnerable clients, Conn colluded with a crooked administrative law judge, David Daugherty, and several doctors to falsify records and con his clients and the U.S. government. When whistleblowers at the SSA caught on and attempted to expose the fraud, Chief Administrative Law Judge Charlie Andrus retaliated against them in an attempt to cover up the corruption.[2]

Meanwhile, the SSA decided to re-determine the benefits eligibility of nearly 3,500 individuals, based on suspicion that Conn submitted fraudulent medical evidence to help them secure disability payments.[3] These re-determinations initially caused over 700 of Conn’s clients to lose their disability benefits. Moreover, if any of those individuals lost at the re-determination hearing, they would have to pay back all the benefits they received over the previous five-plus years. Strife and panic ensued as recipients scrambled to make ends meet after the sudden, catastrophic loss of income.

The plight of many of Conn’s former clients remains dire. First, these disabled individuals were lied to by their former lawyer. Then they lost their primary (and in many cases only) source of income. Finally, they face the unenviable and time-consuming task of proving before an administrative law judge that they were, in fact, disabled a decade ago when they first applied for benefits. Crucially, Conn forged his client’s medical records, leaving the victims’ only documentation of their disability tainted by fraud. Even for those whose records were not altered, the files may no longer exist or be accessible; Conn burned and shredded millions of documents prior to his arrest.[4] Many whose livelihoods depend on SSDI payments functionally have no medical records and, absent a time machine, cannot obtain the evidence that would prove they were disabled at the time they applied. Victims of both a fraudulent lawyer and a mechanistic and dehumanizing disability benefits system, many of Conn’s clients are tragically despaired.[5]

In response, ApalReD, an Appalachian legal aid organization, and Ned Pillersdorf, a private attorney in the region, spearheaded an effort to vigorously represent the victims of Conn’s years-long fraud. Through a long line of cases too numerous to list here, ApalReD and Pillersdorf furiously litigated against the Social Security Administration in a quest to right a widespread injustice. A particularly notable victory required the SSA to reinstate the benefits for Conn’s victims pending a hearing. However, the work is far from over and the risk remains great — a negative decision before an ALJ would require the recipient to pay back potentially 10 years of benefits. The entirety of this decision hinges on the recipient’s ability to prove that they were disabled over a decade ago, often with little to no medical evidence to support their case.

Absent a wide-ranging determination that these individuals will not be subject to rehearings, each individual recipient will be subject to their own hearing before an administrative law judge. Each hearing requires tens if not hundreds of pro bono attorney hours, administrative law judge hours, and an unquantifiable amount of stress to the recipient, who is effectively on trial for a crime somebody else committed. Multiplying this by 1,787 yields a disgraceful waste of government resources spent on traumatizing some of the most vulnerable in society.

Two law students from the Legal Services Center’s Safety Net Project, Jeffrey Jiang and Tracy Zhang, collaborated with Pillersdorf and ApalReD in their latest effort to obtain mass relief for these victims through impact litigation. The students helped draft and edit the complaint, injunction, and supporting memorandum of law. For the clinical students, this has been an invaluable lesson in legal writing, research, and storytelling. Pillersdorf’s 41 years of experience bring sharp insight into the cases; he can rattle off citations from memory, dictate complaints in one go, and has a deep understanding of the various judges involved in the Conn cases. More importantly, he cares relentlessly about Conn’s victims. Pillersdorf’s contagious, righteous vigor permeates the cases he files.

At this stage, ApalReD, Pillersdorf, Jiang and Zhang, along with countless former clients of Conn, are still waiting for the SSA’s answer. They anticipate the SSA will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in early March and expect to reply later that month. Between the various motions and procedural maneuvers available to them, the SSA could drag out this litigation for years.

Their status uncertain, faced with an astoundingly difficult burden of proof, the thousands of Conn victims are trapped in administrative limbo because of a crime they didn’t commit. It’s no surprise that legal commentators have said that the SSA has given the Conn victims “less due process than terrorists.”[6]

[1] Department of Justice, Former Chief Administrative Law Judge Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Retaliate Against Informant, Press Release No.16-682 (Jun. 13, 2016), [Hereinafter DoJ Andrus Release]; The Herald Dispatch, Eric Conn, ex-attorney wanted for fraud, captured in Honduras, (Dec. 7, 2017)
[2] See DoJ Andrus Release.
[3] Steve Rogers, Former Conn clients score another victory against Social Security, WTVQ (Feb. 9, 2021); Chelise L. Conn, Less Due Process Than Terrorists: An Analysis of the Eric C. Conn Fiasco, 107 Ky. L.J. 149, 168 (2018).
[4] Ned Pillersdorf, ‘Perfect Storm of Injustice.’ The saga of Eric Conn’s files, and how his clients got shafted, Lexington Herald Leader (Jul. 5, 2019).
[5] See Jude v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 908 F.3d 152 (6th Cir. 2018).
[6] Chelise L. Conn, Less Due Process Than Terrorists: An Analysis of the Eric C. Conn Fiasco, 107 Ky. L.J. 149 (2018).

Jeffrey Jiang ’22 is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and a clinical student in LSC’s Safety Net Project. 

Filed in: Clinical Student Voices

Tags: Safety Net Project, Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic

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