FRANKFORT, Ky. — Amy Jo Hicks lost her federal disability benefits because her lawyer, Eric Conn, got caught bribing doctors and judges to win approvals for his clients.
The Social Security Administration sent her a letter telling her she had to pay back $62,000 in benefits she had already received. She moved into an RV with no bathroom, signed up for food stamps and sank deeper into depression.
Conn and her doctor, Bradley Adkins, were later sentenced to prison for the scheme. But her lawyers argued that not all the evidence compiled by her doctor was tainted, and they should have a right to rebut in court claims that she received benefits because of fraud. Wednesday, a federal appeals court agreed with her, ruling the Social Security Administration used an unconstitutional process to revoke benefits for hundreds of Conn's former clients.
"There is a distinct dignitary harm to beneficiaries who are not allowed to effectively dispute the allegation that they have been receiving undeserved benefits for close to ten years, leeching government resources to which they had no right," wrote a panel of three judges on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
One of Hicks' attorneys, Evan Smith, said she has since had her benefits restored and is "in a much better situation." But Wednesday's ruling could also lead to hundreds of other people getting their benefits back.
It's the latest twist in the saga of Conn, a flamboyant eastern Kentucky attorney known for his colorful TV commercials and his law offices that featured a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. Conn pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the largest Social Security fraud in history. He fled the country to avoid prison but was caught outside of a Pizza Hut in Honduras and later sentenced to an additional 15 years in prison.
While Conn was fighting and fleeing the charges, thousands of his former clients had to defend their disability benefits in a series of hearings before administrative law judges. In those hearings, judges threw out all evidence from the doctors connected with Conn. His clients were not allowed to challenge that decision.
Hicks was examined by Adkins, a psychologist who was later convicted of signing medical forms that contained false information. Prosecutors said Conn paid Adkins $350 for each form. A judge later sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
The forms Adkins signed are used to determine someone's ability to do daily work-related activities. But Adkins also spent 3½ hours examining Hicks, concluding she had mental impairment that was used to justify her disability benefits. Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center who argued the case, said Hicks and other clients should have had the chance to rely on exams like that in reviewing their benefits.
"Even if you want to believe what investigators said about (the forms), it doesn't justify excluding everything about what the doctors said," Smith said.
In its first round of hearings, the Social Security Administration reviewed benefits for 1,500 people. It revoked benefits for about 47 percent of the cases. Earlier this year, the agency announced it would review benefits for roughly 2,000 other people.
It's unclear how Wednesday's ruling will affect those hearings. The court did not tell the Social Security Administration what to do next. The agency could appeal the ruling. Or it could hold the hearings again, this time allowing the evidence from the doctors to be presented. Representatives from the Social Security Administration did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Smith noted that many people never showed up for the hearings to review their benefits, either because they knew they would lose or they did not understand the process. He said roughly 250 people who lost during the first round of hearings appealed the decision to keep their cases alive.
"One hard and uncertain question is what happens with the people who lost their benefits but didn't keep their case alive by appealing?" he said.