PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — The Social Security Administration told Leroy Burchett and some 900 others like him in Kentucky and West Virginia last month that their disability benefits were being cut off because they were tied to an attorney suspected of fraud.
His wife said he then stopped taking his antidepressants and shot and killed himself less than two weeks later, on June 1. Now she’s suing that attorney who represented him, Eric Conn, blaming Conn for her husband’s death.
“If he hadn’t got that letter and hadn’t been losing his medical insurance this never would have happened,” Burchett’s widow, Emma, told The Associated Press, weeping as she recounted her husband’s final days. “He just wasn’t that kind of person. I mean, heck yeah we had problems, everybody has problems. But not like that.”
The wrongful death lawsuit filed Wednesday targets Conn, who represented all 900 of those people whose benefits were temporarily cut off. The agency restored those benefits June 4, at least until the recipients had a chance to plead their case in court. He has been investigated on accusations of fraud before, though he has never been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.
Conn bills himself as “Mr. Social Security” and estimates he handles roughly 60 percent of disability claims in this part of Appalachia where many depend on government benefits because of the coal industry’s decline and little else in the way of job opportunities. The parking lot of Conn’s office displays small-scale replicas of the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty, and billboards urge potential clients to call 232-HURT.
He is the target of a whistle-blower lawsuit in federal court brought by two former Social Security Administration employees. The federal government declined to prosecute Conn in that case, according to his attorney, Kent Wicker. But the letters sent by the Social Security Administration told Burchett and others their benefits were suspended because “there is reason to believe fraud or similar fault” was involved with evidence submitted by Conn and his office.
Conn’s attorneys instead blamed the Social Security Administration for suspending the benefits without a hearing. And they blamed the publicity surrounding the suspension for creating a panic.
“Let me emphasize once again how sorry Mr. Conn is … for the people who have been victimized. But they were victimized by the Social Security Administration and not by Eric Conn,” said Joseph Lambert, one of Conn’s attorneys and a former chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court. “One wonders if the publicity and the somewhat overwrought rhetoric may have had something to do with Mr. Burchett’s decision.”
Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, declined to comment about the lawsuit but said “the agency is saddened by Mr. Burchett’s death and his family remains in our thoughts.”
More than 8 percent of residents in Kentucky and West Virginia draw disability checks, among the highest rates in the nation. More than a quarter — 56,000 — of the nearly 194,000 people in Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District are considered disabled workers, according to the Social Security Administration. In Floyd County alone, more than 11 percent of the population receives disability benefits.
Leroy Burchett, was a furniture delivery truck driver when he met Emma, a part-time clerk at a Double Quick convenience store. He wooed her without saying a word, simply stopping in the store frequently and putting a pack of gum on the counter.
They were married for 14 years and had two children together. Emma Burchett, 45, said her 41-year-old husband had worked manual labor since he was old enough to push a lawn mower. He was plagued by chronic pain, culminating in several surgeries to have metal plates installed in his neck and back. He was granted disability about six years ago with Conn’s help.
“It was our main source of income,” Emma Burchett said.
Emma Burchett said she stopped working after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and black lung disease, an ailment caused by exposure to coal dust that mostly affects coal miners. She has never worked in a coal mine but has lived near one for years.
When the letter from the Social Security Administration arrived, Emma Burchett said she panicked, but her husband was even worse off. Afraid that he was losing access to his medication, including two antidepressants, he quit taking them.
“If he was even late taking it, he would get confused in his head,” she said.
She urged him to keep taking them, telling him she would lower his dosage to help his supply last longer until they could get everything straightened out.
But on June 1, Emma Burchett said her husband told her he “couldn’t take it anymore” before shooting himself. The next day, she discovered he hadn’t been taking his medication. The pill bottles were still full.