Legislation college students signify disabled purchasers scammed out of their advantages within the largest Social Safety fraud in U.S. historical past
For a few years, the drive into Prestonsburg, Kentucky, was dotted with Eric Conn billboards promoting authorized companies for Social Safety and incapacity advantages. Some had been humorous — one depicted him as an astronaut, one had a 3D determine of him sitting atop the billboard. A lot much less amusing is what Conn did to 1000’s of residents of the world.
Prestonsburg sits not removed from the place Kentucky meets Virginia and West Virginia. It’s a small city in one of many poorest counties within the nation. There, median family revenue sits simply above $20,000. However from his work within the area, Conn defrauded the Social Safety Administration of greater than $550 million, the biggest Social Safety fraud in historical past.
The case caught nationwide consideration, even turning into the supply of a four-part docu-series by Apple TV+ this spring. However within the wake of the scandal had been 1000’s of individuals unemployed, disabled, penniless and distraught.
“For those who had a incapacity case on this space, you went to Conn, as a result of he had the most important and most well-known apply,” explains Bob Jones, a professor and the affiliate dean for experiential applications within the Notre Dame Legislation College.
“His purchasers didn’t know he was dishonest, however then when his con was found — he had a health care provider on the payroll and an administrative legislation choose on the payroll and so forth — Social Safety simply summarily lower off advantages to a whole bunch or 1000’s of his former purchasers. These are individuals who reside within the hills, with no revenue and legit disabilities, and now no option to reside.”
“This area has all the wonder and all of the heartache of humanity. It’s an enchanting space and tradition with lots of hospitable, fantastic individuals.” —Bob Jones
To distinguish the really disabled from the scammers, the Social Safety Administration insisted on new hearings for each Eric Conn shopper — round 3,800 — and refused revenue to these in query till they could possibly be assessed. What’s extra, some residents acquired payments to pay again all the cash that they had acquired, in some circumstances upward of $100,000. Ned Pillersdorf, a neighborhood lawyer, bleakly recollects the aftermath. Mates and neighbors went from residing on $900 monthly to nothing. Suicides skyrocketed. What’s extra, virtually not one of the purchasers had ever even met Conn and couldn’t have been in on his scheme, Pillersdorf says. His apply grew to become flooded with Conn purchasers, and he was drowning.
In an effort to expedite funds, some residents tried to signify themselves on the hearings — however solely about 18 p.c had been awarded their advantages. As compared, two-thirds of these with authorized counsel saved theirs. Pillersdorf wanted assist to avoid wasting his neighbors’ advantages and their lives. At first, a wave of legal professionals from across the nation swooped in to signify at greater than 1,000 hearings, however as rapidly as they got here, they had been gone. Then got here reinforcements from legislation faculties.
In 2008, lengthy earlier than Eric Conn was caught committing fraud, Notre Dame’s Legislation College started volunteering within the space. Jones notes that Notre Dame’s Heart for Social Issues had been sending undergraduate college students to Appalachia for years, so he created the legislation externship largely influenced by that mannequin.
“This area has all the wonder and all of the heartache of humanity. It’s an enchanting space and tradition with lots of hospitable, fantastic individuals,” says Jones, a Kentucky native himself. “And it’s additionally a area that’s racked by poverty and has been remoted and left behind in some ways by America.”
Jones believed this system ought to lengthen past a mere service journey, and as of 2010, insisted the expertise be credit-bearing and a part of the Legislation College curriculum. In preparation, the scholars take a course with Jones that contextualizes the place and the expectations of them.
“My class periods are targeted on poverty and the way authorized points come up from the poverty and social points in central Appalachia, together with coal mining,” Jones explains. “The reflection that I ask the scholars to do on this course may be very immediately about poverty and repair, and what they’ve discovered and the way that is going to impression their fascinated with their careers.”
The expertise, which Jones calls half immersion and half authorized help, permits the scholars to each study and serve in tandem. It’s been efficient — some college students have rerouted their postgraduate careers into public service, whereas others have discovered job alternatives that permit time for pro-bono work.
“Legislation college students are going to exit in the true world, they will do lots of hurt or lots of good, and a option to put together them is to have them meet actual individuals in actual conditions and use their abilities.” —Ned Pillersdorf
Again in 2008 when this system launched, the scholars started working with the nonprofit legislation agency known as the Appalachian Analysis and Protection Fund of Kentucky Inc. (AppalReD), which had known as upon Notre Dame to assist present free authorized companies starting from housing help to end-of-life planning to household legislation for low-income purchasers. The scholars have continued to return each spring and fall break since.
In 2015, Rob Johns ’91 took the helm of AppalReD the place he now mentors the Notre Dame legislation college students throughout their visits. He hopes that the introduction to each Appalachia and public service conjures up the scholars to make use of their authorized coaching to serve those that want it probably the most.
“We at AppalReD attempt to make it possible for our purchasers have the essential requirements of life: meals, housing, well being care, revenue, security, stability,” Johns explains. “We actually respect the scholars coming right here twice a 12 months and doing the nice work they do. We hope that we offer them with some info and hopefully some good expertise that they’ll have the ability to use as they determine what they wish to do with their careers.”
Pillersdorf echoes the gratitude for the Notre Dame legislation college students. They signed on to begin engaged on the Conn circumstances in 2016.
“Notre Dame legislation college students have been in all probability probably the most useful gamers in serving to me the final three or 4 years that they’ve been coming right down to this debacle,” Pillersdorf says. He explains that whereas many legislation faculties have college students apply moot courts and hypothetical studying, Notre Dame college students work on the bottom and get actual expertise.
“Legislation college students are going to exit in the true world, they will do lots of hurt or lots of good, and a option to put together them is to have them meet actual individuals in actual conditions and use their abilities,” he says.
Beneath Pillersdorf’s steerage, the scholars dove into the Conn circumstances. The problem was not proving the purchasers are disabled — however proving they had been disabled on the time they employed Eric Conn. To do this, the scholars positioned and reviewed medical information, pieced collectively timelines and met the purchasers themselves to report their tales. As legislation college students, they had been even in a position to function representatives on the Social Safety hearings. Even within the brief, one-week stints, the impression was huge, Pillersdorf says.
“I’ve heard persistently that the legislation college students did a greater job than the legal professionals,” Pillersdorf says. “When the Notre Dame legislation college students got here down and, you already know, considerably joined within the battle with the Social Safety Administration, they made an actual distinction in not solely saving these individuals’s advantages, however in my view, doubtless stopping them from committing suicide or making an attempt to commit suicide.”
Since then, the scholars have additionally helped Pillersdorf on one other nationwide case. In 2019, power firm Blackjewel abruptly filed for chapter and closed its coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia with out paying a whole bunch of miners. The quantity owed was estimated to be greater than $5 million in again wages. Pillersdorf took on the case and, with some help from Notre Dame legislation college students, received the case to get the miners their again wages.
“The Appalachia Externship helps open college students’ eyes to these wants and helps them perceive how they will use their authorized abilities to alter lives.” —Bob Jones
“If our college students occur to be there on the proper time, they’ll assist out with considered one of these main circumstances resembling Conn or Blackjewel,” Jones says. However he underscores that this isn’t the one alternative within the Legislation College for experiential studying. The college boasts a variety of clinics and externships that permit college students to apply what they’re studying by offering supervised authorized companies. The work ranges from exoneration, to mediation in household and civil circumstances, to asylum circumstances, to neighborhood improvement. Eighty p.c of scholars enroll in these applications earlier than commencement.
“The Legislation College’s mission is to coach ‘a distinct type of lawyer.’ We instill in our college students that serving these most in want needs to be an integral a part of their careers,” Jones explains. “The Appalachia Externship helps open college students’ eyes to these wants and helps them perceive how they will use their authorized abilities to alter lives.”
And so they have. Again at AppelRed, Johns believes the legislation college students and their presence in rural Kentucky are the embodiment of Notre Dame’s mission.
“Notre Dame may be very dedicated to social justice. That is simply one of many many, many ways in which Notre Dame walks the stroll. They don’t simply speak the speak,” Johns says. “We respect the chance to attach with them and to have the scholars right here. We hope that this partnership continues for a few years to come back.”