December 5, 2023

Economix: Mr. Disability

As we’ve noted here before, the federal disability program cost about $190 billion last year, in payments to disabled workers and health care for them. That’s the equivalent of roughly $1,500 in taxes for every American household.

Many are these workers are truly disabled. For others, though, disability has become a shadow program of long-term unemployment benefits, providing modest payments to people who probably can work and would do so if they could find a job with decent pay.

In The Wall Street Journal today, Damian Paletta has an article about a West Virginia administrative law judge who may provide the single best example of the system’s problems. Since the start of last year, the judge, David B. Daugherty, has heard more than 2,000 disability cases. He has awarded benefits in all but four of those cases, an approval rate of 99.8 percent.

No other judge in the country who hears remotely so many cases has an approval rate anywhere near as high.

Some of the most incredible details in Mr. Paletta’s story appear long after the front-page portion:

As Mr. Daugherty’s numbers rose, judges, staff and local attorneys began complaining about the volume of cases brought before the judge by one Kentucky lawyer.

The lawyer, Eric C. Conn, runs his Social Security practice out of a collection of connected mobile homes in Stanville, Ky., where he erected a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in the parking lot. His smiling face adorns billboards up and down Highway 23, and his slogan is “he gets the job done.” Mr. Conn hired [Algernon] Tinsley, [a] former Huntington judge, and promotes him on local billboards, too. Mr. Conn often brings an inflatable replica of himself to events. His Web site address is

Judges and staff in the Huntington office have complained to supervisors that Mr. Daugherty assigns himself Mr. Conn’s cases, including some that were assigned to other judges, two former judges and several staff said. Cases are supposed to be assigned randomly.

According to a court schedule of Mr. Daugherty’s day reviewed by The Wall Street Journal dated Feb. 22, 2006, Mr. Daugherty held 20 hearings spaced 15 minutes apart for Mr. Conn and his clients in a Prestonsburg, Ky., field office. Such days can be a bonanza for lawyers: The average fee for one approval is between $3,000 and $3,500 and can go as high as $6,000.

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