Reminder: Statue of Limitations on Filing for FERS & CSRS Federal Disability Retirement

At various times, in various forums, I have noted some confusion on the issue of when an individual can/must file for disability retirement, so I want to clarify some of the issues.

Confusion #1: Do you have to wait 1 year in order to file for Federal dislability retirement? The answer is “No” — the “1-year requirement” is merely that your medical condition is expected to last for at least a year. Thus, if you have a medical condition that impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your job, your doctor will certainly be able to tell you whether he/she thinks it will last for at least a year. Thus, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you actually have to wait for a year with your medical condition before you can file for federal disability retirement; it merely means that your condition is expected to last at least 1 year, and doctors can normally provide a prognosis of the expected amount of time.

Confusion #2: You have 1 year from the time of your injury to file for disability retirement. The answer: “No” — you have 1 year from the date you are separated from Federal Service to file for disability retirement. If you do not file prior to the expiration of that 1 year statute of limitations, you lose your right forever. Some confuse the 1-year requirement with thinking that it is within 1 year of being on Leave Without Pay, or 1 year from being away from the job, etc. The 1-year requirement is 1 year from the day you have been separated from Federal Service.

Finally, remember that disability retirement can take anywhere from 6 months to a year to obtain, because of the bureaucratic maze which one must go through in the process of filing; thus, it is often a good idea to file sooner, rather than later. Once you realize that you are no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of your Federal job, and once you have the support of your doctor, it is time to file.

Hope this clears up any confusions

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

The Bruner Presumption

Just some comments about this important concept and one which all disability retirement applicants should be aware of. It is well-established law that an employee’s removal for his or her physical inability to perform the essential functions of his job or position, constitutes prima facie evidence that he is entitled to disability retirement as a matter of law, and that the burden of production then shifts to OPM to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the applicant is not entitled to disability retirement benefits. See Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993); and Marczewski v. Office of Personnel Management, 80 M.S.P.R. 343 (1998). What this means, essentially, is that if a Federal or Postal employee is removed for his or her medical inability to perform his/her job, the “burden of production” is placed onto OPM. It is as if OPM must “disprove” a disability retirement case, as opposed to an individual having to prove his/her right to disability retirement. It is a “prima facie” case, in that, by having your Agency remove you for your inability to perform your job, it is considered a valid case “on its face”. Further, in more recent cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board has held that the Bruner Presumption also applies where “removal for extended absences is equivalent to removal for physical inability to perform where it is accompanied by specifications indicating that the decision to remove was based on medical documentation suggesting that the appellant was disabled and unable to perform her duties.” McCurdy v. OPM, DA-844E-03-0088-I-1 (April 30, 2004), citing as authority Ayers-Kavtaradze v. Office of Personnel Management, 91 M.S.P.R. 397 (2002). This means that the removal itself need not specifically state that you are being removed for your medical inability to perform your job; it can remove you for other reasons stated, such as “extended absences”, as long as you can establish a paper-trail showing that those extended absences were based upon a medical reason.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

Approval of Disability by the Social Security Administration

Approval of Disability by the Social Security Administration: In Trevan v. Office of Personnel Management, 69 F.3d 520, 526-27 (Fed. Cir. 1995), the Federal Circuit Court found that in making a determination of eligibility for disability retirement under FERS, the Board must consider an award of SSA disability benefits together with medical evidence provided by the appellant to OPM, and other evidence of disability. This is because the Federal Circuit Court wanted a consistency of determinations concerning disabilities, by all governmental agencies and departments. Social Security obviously has a stricter standard, and requires that an applicant be “totally disabled” in order to award benefits. I have effectively argued that similar determinations by other governmental agencies (such as the Veterans Administration) should also be required to be considered by the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Attorney

In Filing for Disability Retirement, Remember the Basics

In the opening sentence of Davis v. the Office of Personnel Management, PH-844E-06-0242-I-1, the Merit Systems Protection Board reminds us all that the “burden of proving entitlement to a retirement benefit is on the applicant…” In past federal disability articles, I have discussed a variety of issues, from important legal principles based upon Bruner v. OPM, to showing how to build the “proper bridge” in preparing a disability retirement application. In preparing a disability retirement application, however, remember to always satisfy the “basics”, because if you fail at the basic level, you will never get to the “substantive” level to argue your case. Davis is a case about a disability retirement applicant whose application was denied at the first Stage (the “initial application stage”) because she “did not present any medical evidence to support her claim.” Strike One — how can you file a medical disability retirement application without any medical evidence?

Next, Ms. Davis failed to file her “Request for Reconsideration” within the 30-day period. She filed it 5 days late. Strike Two — you won’t even be able to argue the substance of your disability retirement case if you don’t take care of the “basics” — like filing your Request for Reconsideration in a timely manner. In OPM’s denial letter, it clearly stated: “Your Request for Reconsideration must be received by OPM within 30 calendar days from the date of your initial denial letter.” Ms. Davis had no excuse.

Now, every now and then — but very, very rarely — an exception will come along. Such was the case in Goodman v. Office of Personnel Management, 100 M.S.P.R. 43 (2005), which was cited as a distinguishing case by the Board. In Goodman, multiple factors allowed the appellant to be excused for her tardiness — including, being misled by OPM verbally over the telephone; receiving the denial letter some three weeks after being postmarked (thereby leaving her with only a week to respond); and being a quadriplegic who had to rely upon others to assist her in responding. Be aware: only under the most exceptional of circumstances will being late in responding be excused. You must take care of the basics, before going on to the substance of a case.

Ms. Davis filed an appeal to the Full Board. Her appeal was, as you might guess, denied. The Board stated that in cases such as this, where Ms. Davis “fails to show that she was not notified of the deadline and was not otherwise aware of it, or that she was prevented by circumstances beyond her control from making the request within the time limit, we will not reach the issue of whether OPM was unreasonable or abused its discretion in denying her untimely request for reconsideration.” (italics added).

Strike three. Ms. Davis is out. As I have reiterated throughout this article, unless you take care of the basics, you cannot even get to the substance of your disability retirement claim. Like the parable of the mighty army which could defeat its enemy, that army could not survive to fight the battle unless it took care of a basic need — water for its troops to cross the scorching desert to meet its enemy. It failed to take care of the basics.

In life, we are all busy doing multiple things, and when a Federal or Postal Employee comes to a point in his or her life where filing for disability retirement becomes a necessity, it is often a good idea to hire an attorney — not only to ensure that the “basics” are taken care of, bur further, to make sure that you get the opportunity to argue the substance of your particular case. My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

As an aside, let me point out some other “basics”:

1. Remember that you have one (1) year from the date you are separated from service to file for disability retirement. The one (1) year date does not begin when you stop working; it doesn’t begin when you get placed on LWOP; it doesn’t begin from the time you get disabled. It begins from the date you are separated from Federal Service.

2. For my clients (and those who are not my clients) whom I got disability retirement for — remember that you are allowed to get another job and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity you are receiving. It is earned income that counts — not rental income, not investment income, and certainly not your disability income.

3. A teaser — I will probably address this issue in my next article — the Office of Personnel Management seems to, more recently, be scrutinizing those who are already receiving medical disability retirement benefits. For those of my clients (and those who are not my clients) who receive disability retirement, remember to take OPM’s Medical Questionnaire seriously. I have had more cases than usual where disability annuitants have had their disability income discontinued. More on this later….

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement and the Agency Cover of “Accommodation”

I am receiving too many phone calls from people who have been fooled by his/her Agency that they have been “accommodated”, and therefore they cannot file for disability retirement. From Federal Workers at all levels who are told that they can take LWOP when they are unable to work, to Postal Workers who are given “Limited-Duty Assignments” — all need to be clear that your are NOT BEING ACCOMMODATED, AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO FILE FOR DISABILITY RETIREMENT. Let me clarify this issue by first discussing the important case-law of Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Bracey was, and still is, a landmark decision — one of those cases that pushed back the attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to create a broad definition of what “accommodation” means, and thereby try and undermine a Federal and/or Postal Employees’ right to disability retirement. 5 U.S.C. 8337(a) states that a disabled employee is eligible for disability retirement unless the employee is able to render “useful and efficient service in the employee’s position”, or is qualified for reassignment to an existing vacant position in the agency at the same grade or level. What this basically means is that, if you have a medical condition and you cannot do one or more of the essential elements of your job, you are entitled to disability retirement unless your Agency can (a) do something so that you can continue to work in your job, or (b) reassign you to an existing vacant position at the same pay or grade (all of those words are key to understanding the Bracey decision). As to the first issue, if your medical condition, either physical or psychiatric, is impacting your ability to perform the key functions of your job (in other words, “useful and efficient service” means that you must be able to perform the “critical or essential” elements of your position), then it means that you are eligible for disability retirement — unless the Agency can reassign you to an existing vacant position (the second issue). As to the second issue, what the Court in Bracey meant is that there has to be an actual position existing, which is vacant, to which a person can be reassigned and slotted into, at the same pay or grade.

In Bracey, the Office of Personnel Management was trying to have it both ways: they argued that (a) an individual is “accommodated” if he can do his “job”, and the “job” which the Agency was having Mr. Bracey do was a “light-duty” job that was made up by the Agency. As a result, the Office of Personnel Management had denied Mr. Bracey’s application for disability retirement, and the case reached the Merit Systems Protection Board, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on appeal. More recently, Agencies have been trying to convince Federal workers that they can take “Leave Without Pay” and work less hours; or revert to part-time status; or perform some other functions — and this constitutes an “accommodation”. Or, in the case of Postal Workers, especially those who have intersecting OWCP issues, one is often told that “Limited-Duty Assignments” constitute an “accommodation”. However, for the latter, it is important to review such assignments — does it include jobs from another craft? Are you offered a new “Limited Duty Assignment” each year, or every two years (which would imply that it is not a permanent assignment)? Can a new supervisor or Postmaster come in tomorrow and declare that there are no longer any “Limited Duty Assignments” available (which is often the case)?

Remember that a “position” in the federal employment system is “required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it. The ‘resulting position-classification’ system is ‘used in all phases of personnel administration’. 5 U.S.C. 5101(2)” (Bracey at page 1359). It cannot be a position “consisting of a set of ungraded, unclassified duties that have been assigned to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id.

Similarly, for Postal employees, you cannot be slotted in your craft position, but then be given duties crossing over from other crafts; and you cannot be told that you have been slotted into an already existing “vacant” position, but then be offered the same “Limited-Duty” position a year later. If it was truly a permanent “vacant” position, why would you be offered the same position a year later?

Remember that under 5 C.F.R. Section 831.502(b)(7), an offered position must be, among other things, of the same tenure as the position from which the employee seeks disability retirement. “Tenure” is defined at 5 C.F.R. Section 210.102(b)(17) as “the period of time an employee may reasonably expect to serve under his current appointment.”

If you are a Federal or Postal employee, and you find this discussion about the Bracey decision to be somewhat confusing, do not let the complexity of disability retirement laws keep you from inquiring about your eligibility. In its simplest form, disability retirement is about 2 issues: Are you able to perform the essential elements of your job? If not, Can your Agency slot you into an already-existing position at the same pay, grade and tenure, and not just in some “made up” position that hasn’t been graded and classified”? If your answer is “No” to both questions, then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits.

As true with all things in life, it is always better to affirmatively act with knowledge, especially knowledge of the law. Like the Tibetan proverb, to act without knowledge of the law is to act blindly. To fail to act, or to allow your circumstances to control your destiny, is to allow your Federal Agency or the U.S. Postal Service to dictate your future for you. If you are disabled, and unable to perform the critical elements of your job, then you should consider the option of disability retirement. Opting for disability retirement does not mean that you can no longer be productive in society in some other capacity; indeed, you are allowed to receive a disability annuity and go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays. Opting for disability retirement merely means that you have a medical condition which is no longer a good “fit” for the type of job you currently have.

My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Workers: Things You Shouldn’t Do When Filing For CSRS or FERS Disability Retirement

First, a quick clarification: I have had periodic calls concerning the time-frame in filing for disability retirement. The Statute of Limitations in filing for disability retirement is one year from the date you are separated from Federal Service — not from the date you were injured, or from the time you stopped working, etc. Next, many Federal and Postal Workers ask me to represent them in obtaining disability retirement at the Second Stage (OPM’s Reconsideration Stage), after having filed without representation. I have no problems with that — indeed, sometimes (though rarely), individuals have such a severe degree of medical disabilities that an attorney is not necessary. For the majority of Federal and Postal Workers, however, representation beginning at the initial stage of a disability retirement application is necessary. If, however, for financial or other reasons (including stubbornness), an individual insists upon filing for disability retirement without a qualified Attorney, the following are a few things which you should NOT do in preparing your application:

Do not become non-compliant in a treatment regimen, medication regimen, or any aspect of a reasonable medical regimen designed to treat the disease or injury. This is a sure way to have your disability retirement application denied. For, when an employee “is unable to render useful and efficient service because that employee fails or refuses to follow or accept normal treatment, it is wholly proper to say that the employee’s disability flows, not from the disease or injury itself (as the statute requires), but from the employee’s voluntary failure or refusal to take the available corrective or ameliorative action.” Baker v. Office of Personnel Management, 782 F.2d 993, 994 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (A word of caution: this does not mean that all surgeries must be consented to).

Do not ignore the basis of a Notice of Removal. I have previously discussed the importance of obtaining the Bruner Presumption, whenever possible, in a disability retirement case. Beyond getting the Bruner Presumption, however, is the fact that any implication of misconduct or willful failure on the part of the Federal or Postal Employee should always be appealed, if not to have it completely amended, then to at least have such a basis for removal expunged, and instead to allow for the employee to resign, thereby nullifying misconduct as a basis for separation. Never give the Office of Personnel Management an additional reason to deny your disability retirement application.

Do not have your treating doctors send in medical documentation directly to the Agency Personnel Office. Always take charge of your own disability retirement application. Have the doctors send the medical documentation to you, and personally review and inspect each page of your submission for accuracy, relevance, and applicability to your medical condition. Never blindly submit medical documentation to the Office of Personnel Management. Again, never give the Office of Personnel Management an additional reason to deny your disability retirement application. This advice, of course, goes “hand-in-hand” with my policy of never signing the SF 3112C (Physician’s Statement), which often releases all of the medical documentation directly to the Agency.

These are just three fundamental “Do Not” rules in preparing and filing for disability retirement. When a Federal or Postal Employee comes to me at the Reconsideration Stage for legal representation, I find that I must first correct several fundamental errors committed by the applicant. While I can almost always correct the mistakes already made, the damage can only be minimized, and never completely eradicated, because the error is already known to the Office of Personnel Management. Still, I am normally able to convince the Office of Personnel Management to approve the disability retirement application.

In the course of representing Federal and Postal Workers to obtain disability retirement benefits, I have always tried to emphasize the fact that, while it is each individual’s choice as to whether or not to hire an attorney, you should always proceed with the greatest tool available — knowledge. Disability Retirement is a benefit accorded to all Federal and Postal Employees under FERS and CSRS. However, as with all benefits, the right to it remains unclaimed unless one proves, by a preponderance of the evidence, that one is legally entitled to it. To prove your claim, you must go at it from a position of strength — and this requires knowledge. Like the Mother Rabbit who cautions her bunnies, do not allow lack of knowledge to be your stumbling block.

My name is Robert R. McGill. I am an attorney who specializes in disability retirement claims for Federal and Postal Employees. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932, or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com.

FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement Compared To OWCP

OWCP vs. OPM Disability Retirement

The Department of Labor administers Federal Worker’s Compensation Benefits through the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP). Such benefits are non-taxable, and are paid for temporary total disability, for injuries or medical conditions which result from, or are caused by, a workplace injury. There are many tangential factors which may be added to this basic definition, but for purposes of distinguishing OWCP from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Disability Retirement, this definition will suffice. Additionally, generally speaking, OWCP/Federal Worker’s Compensation is not a “retirement system.”

OPM Disability retirement, on the other hand, is a retirement system. As a result of a medical condition which impacts one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, a person is eligible to retire early, based upon a “medical disability.” A person on OPM Disability Retirement is separated from the Federal Agency, and he or she may “move on” in life, and perhaps start another career (with certain limitations as stated below).

When is it Time to File for FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement?

An individual must file for Federal Employees Retirement System/Civil Service Retirement System (FERS/CSRS) disability retirement benefits with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from Federal Service – otherwise, the right to be eligible for disability retirement benefits is lost. Do not confuse this with being placed on Leave Without Pay (LWOP), or being out on OWCP for being injured. The clock begins ticking when you are actually separated from service. Most people, however, should not wait until they are separated to file for disability retirement benefits, but rather, should file whenever it becomes apparent that he or she can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.

Taxable vs NonTaxable Benefits

OWCP benefits are non-taxable. OPM Disability Retirement benefits, on the other hand, are taxed. While receiving disability retirement benefits, a person may undertake a job search, accept another position, and earn up to 80% of what his or her former position currently pays. Individuals receiving OWCP temporary total disability may not work at another job – period. Here is a sample scenario using OPM Disability Retirement rules:

A worker’s average salary for 3 consecutive years totals $50,000. The individual goes out on disability retirement, and after the first year (in which he would receive 60%, or $30,000), he is eligible to receive an annual annuity of 40%, or $20,000. The worker then applies for and accepts a job in the private sector. The worker can accept a job that pays up to $40,000 per year (80% of the current salary), and still be eligible to receive the $20,000 per year disability annuity.

The 80% Rule Increases Over Time

The rule is “80% of what a person’s former job pays currently.” If 5 years from now, a person’s former position pays $60,000 per year instead of $50,000, then he can make up to $48,000 per year at the job, because 80% of $60,000 is $48,000.

Filing for Disability Retirement while on Workers’ Compensation

It is often not a bad idea for those who are receiving OWCP benefits to remain on OWCP for as long as they can stand it (i.e., the persistent harassment, the constant oversight by so-called “2nd opinion doctors”, etc.) — but to always have the FERS/CSRS disability retirement annuity approved as a back-up source of income. Individuals may file for disability retirement concurrently while on OWCP — but you simply cannot collect from both at the same time (See 5 C.F.R. Sec. 844.105, “Relationship to workers’ compensation. (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, an individual who is eligible for both an annuity under part 842 or 844 of this chapter and compensation for injury or disability under subchapter I of chapter 81 of title 5, United States Code (other than a scheduled award under 5 U.S.C. 8107(c)), covering the same period of time must elect to receive either the annuity or compensation.”).

When OWCP terminates payments (and there is a very good chance that this will happen at some point in the near future), it is a wise option to have your disability retirement benefits approved, but held in an inactive status. Federal workers have every right to elect one benefit over the other. Indeed, if you wanted to, you are allowed to go back and forth between OWCP and FERS/CSRS disability retirement.

As a secondary issue on this matter, a closer look at 5 U.S.C. Section 8106, paragraph (c) (2), (OWCP) on “partial disability” compared with the definition for disability retirement reveals: that “partially disabled employee who refuses or, neglects to work after suitable work is offered to, procured by, or secured for him, is not entitled to compensation.” This means that if OWCP secures a job for you as a retail store greeter for instance, and pays you the difference between your salary and what retail store pays — and you decide to say “no”, OWCP has every right to cut off your payments.

On the other hand, under the laws concerning FERS & CSRS disability retirement, 5 C.F.R.Sec. 844.103 (a)(2) states that, in order to be eligible for disability retirement, the individual “must, while employed in a position subject to FERS, have become disabled because of a medical condition, resulting in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or if there is no such deficiency, the disabling medical condition must be incompatible with either useful and efficient service or retention in the position.” The difference here is that, under OWCP, if you are “partially disabled,” if you are offered any job that OWCP believes you can do, you must accept it. On the other hand, under FERS/CSRS disability retirement laws, if you are partially disabled — meaning that you simply cannot do at least one or more of the essential elements of your job — then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits, and your agency or the Postal Service cannot simply offer you any job; they must offer you a job in the same pay or grade, and one in which you are qualified or, if you are in the Postal Service, then it must an accommodation in the same craft.

Controlling Your Future

Under OWCP, you have no control over your future – OWCP determines your future. Under OPM Disability Retirement, you can obtain disability retirement benefits, and then take control of your future and work at another job of your choice, make up to 80% of what your (former) position pays and still continue to receive your disability annuity.