CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: Don’t Assume

We are all familiar with the acronym-like adage which can be extracted from the word “assume”.  In preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the first question that one must ask of one’s self is:  “Do I have a supportive doctor?”  If the answer is an unequivocal “No”, then entertaining even the thought of proceeding forward with the process is a virtual act of futility.  

Now, to all unqualified statements, there are exceptions to the rule.  There are, indeed, medical conditions where the mere treatment records, office notes, etc., reveal irrefutably of a medical condition of such severity that there is no question as to its impact upon one’s ability/inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job.  But that is rare.  If the answer to the original question is:  “He may be…”  “I assume he is supportive…”  “He seems supportive because…”   While these are niceties in one’s figment of one’s imagination, and foster a sense of security and a warmth for a doctor-patient relationship, such answers all have an undercurrent of an assumption.  Don’t assume, if you are planning to go forward with a Federal Disability Retirement application.  Instead, make an appointment with your doctor and have a frank and open discussion.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Accommodation Revisited

There is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency, or the U.S. Postal Service, from providing light duty, limited duty, or “special assignments” to an injured individual, or a Federal or Postal employee who suffers from a medical condition which prevents or otherwise impedes him or her from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  The difficult conceptual framework that many Federal and Postal employees are unable to grasp, is that while the Federal Agency can certainly allow for such light duty assignments, such light duty assignments do not preclude one from continuing to remain eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  

The reason for the continuing eligibility is that there is a legal distinction between “accommodation” under the law, and “light duty” work.  An accommodation, in order to be a technically legal application of the term, must be some act or provision which the Agency makes, such that the individual is capable of performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  Thus, being allowed to take a greater amount of sick leave, or take LWOP, or be allowed to perform duties which are peripheral to one’s position description — while all well and good — do not allow the Federal or Postal employee to continue to perform the essential elements of the official position description.  As such, light duty allowances do not constitute an accommodation under the law, and while it continues to allow the Federal or Postal employee to remain employed, it also does not preclude him or her from being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Opinions, OPM and Power

In filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, one must always be aware of the distinction between the two — opinions and power — and apply it with that awareness in filing an application for Federal Disability Retirement to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  

There will be multiple opinions involved in any Federal Disability Retirement packet — the opinion of the medical doctor who is treating the applicant; the opinion of the applicant as to one’s ability or inability to perform some, which or all of the essential elements of one’s job; the opinion of the Supervisor or someone at the Agency on multiple issues, rendered in the Supervisor’s Statement and the Agency’s Certification for Reassignment and Accommodation; and the “opinion” handed out by the Office of Personnel Management as to whether all of the compendium of opinions, collectively gathered to present the evidence for approval in a Federal Disability Retirement application, constitute sufficient evidence such that it meets the preponderance of the evidence in proving one’s case.  It is thus helpful to understand that all of these identifiable propositions are all “opinions”.  

The one distinction, however, is that the opinion of the Office of Personnel Management carries with it the power of approval or disapproval, and so one may designate it as carrying more “weight” because it contains an inherent authority which all other opinions lack — that of the power to say yea or nay.  But remember that such power, fortunately, is not absolute, nor necessarily arbitrary and capricious, and there is ultimately an appeal process to have such raw power reviewed for viability and sufficiency.  That is why the validity and force of the “other” opinions is important to maintain — the medical opinion and the opinion of the Applicant — so that when it is reviewed by an Administrative Judge, the integrity of a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS may be properly adjudicated.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for US Government Employees: Building Blocks

The analogy or metaphor in preparing, filing, and waiting (for a decision) in a Federal Disability Retirement application for FERS or CSRS employees, submitted for review before the Office of Personnel Management, is of a child with square building blocks. If at the first try, the outcome is a nod of approval, nothing further needs to be accomplished.  If, however, a third party (the Office of Personnel Management) comes along and knocks down the building blocks (analogy:  a denial from OPM), then the child must rearrange the building blocks anew, and perhaps add one or two more for reinforcement.

Thus, depending upon the basis of OPM’s denial (which is often either irrelevant or self-contradictory, or both), one may want to reinforce that which was already gathered and organized, for a re-presentation of both the original evidence, and additional medical or other supporting evidence.  Again, if a third party (OPM) knocks down the second set of building blocks (a second denial at the Reconsideration Stage of the process), then it will be time for further reorganization, and for gathering of additional supporting building blocks.

When it gets to the Third Level of the process, the Merit Systems Protection Board, remember that all of the original building blocks of the process will still be there for the Administrative Judge to review.  That is the point of having the perspective of the entire process as one of “building blocks” — that the entire foundation is still there to be added to and reviewed, in the end, by an Administrative Judge.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: Annotating the Record

It is always important, in contemplating a Federal Disability Retirement application either under FERS or CSRS, to annotate the record where possible.  Remember that the Merit Systems Protection Board has previously found that “an appellant’s application for disability retirement in the face of an impending removal for misconduct may cast doubt upon the veracity of his application.” Henderson v. OPM , 109 MSPR 529 (2008).

As such, in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application, a successful outcome may depend upon a “war of memorandums” between the applicant and the Agency.  If the Agency is attempting to remove a Federal or Postal employee based upon “performance” or “conduct” issues, without regard to any medical evidence submitted to the agency, and thereby attempting to characterize the absences, the lack of productivity, warnings and suspensions as mere intransigence and insubordination, then it is important to annotate the record and memorialize the contacts, the submissions, etc., by writing confirming emails, letters, memorandums, etc., where the agency was informed about the medical conditions, which medical documents were submitted, to whom they were submitted, and even the content (perhaps in summary form) of what the doctor has stated.  The only way to remove a shadow of a doubt is by allowing the sunlight in (sorry for the trite analogy/metaphor).

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Bruner Revisited

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, one should never pause or hesitate from affirmatively going forward in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application based upon what the Agency will or will not do; is expected or not expected to do; or is predicted or not predicted to do.  One should simply move forward based upon one’s personal and professional circumstances, the extent of the medical condition, the impact of one’s medical condition upon one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, etc.  

Thus, for instance, where a Federal or Postal employee has informed the Agency of one’s medical condition, or one has filed for FMLA and submitted substantiating medical documentation, if the plan is to “wait” for the Agency to remove the Federal or Postal employee in order to obtain the advantage of what is generally known as the “Bruner Presumption,” such a plan is normally not the best course of action, for various reasons.  

First, the Agency may take an extraordinary amount of time, and in the end, may attempt to remove the Federal or Postal employee for “other reasons” (performance issues, for instance).  Second, whether or not one “gets” the Bruner Presumption in a case, that legal advantage is really for the Third Stage of the process — at the Merit Systems Protection Board — inasmuch as most of the Claims Reviewers at the Office of Personnel Management are not legally informed enough to know such a legal presumption from a nearby neighbor named John Doe Bruner.  And Third, one must affirmatively prove by a preponderance of the evidence, anyway, that one cannot perform the essential elements of one’s job because of a medical condition.  The Bruner Presumption, while a great thing to have, does not override the medical condition and evidence which must be presented.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Early Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: A Different Process Reality

The “process reality” of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under either FERS or CSRS is a completely different kind of reality — a parallel universe that continues on regardless of whether or not one enters into such a world.  That is why it is often a shock for Federal and Postal workers who enter into such a foreign process reality.  

When a Federal or Postal worker is engaged in the “work world”, the process reality involves and entails goal-oriented accomplishments, daily tasks to be completed, career goals to be defined, interactions with coworkers and supervisors to be handled in diplomatic manners, etc.  

When a medical condition intervenes, however, the process reality of the work world suddenly changes — and changes traumatically and dramatically.  Suddenly, coworkers and supervisors view you differently; career goals are replaced with fear and trepidation for the future; daily tasks are seen as hurdles to overcome; work becomes a trial of daily pain.  On top of it all, the process reality of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS — with all of the surrounding laws, statutes, case-laws and procedural complications — becomes the new reality.  It is a reality which encompasses bureaucratic hurdles and pitfalls, but one which must be confronted.  While most Federal or Postal employees have little choice but to enter such a parallel process reality when the need arises, it is nevertheless a difficult reality to face, and little can be done to prepare in advance for it.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Resisting Tendencies

In filing an application for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, there is a tendency to assuming that the Federal Agency will be providing a complete, fair, impartial, and thorough review of one’s application, and that one’s disability retirement application will be applied in accordance with the law.  Such a tendency to expect a certain level of competence and impartiality is certainly understandable; but the reality is far from the tendency of such expectation.

There are many factors which interfere with such expectations: the competency of the assigned OPM representative; the knowledge (or lack thereof) of the individual Representative; the caseload; and multiple other factors. Thus, when there is the false expectation that one’s Federal Disability Retirement application has been fully reviewed and the entirety of the law has been taken into consideration, there is a tendency to believe what the Office of Personnel Management has said as gospel truth.  “There is insufficient objective medical evidence to…”   “The MRIs failed to reveal that…”   “Your doctors failed to state that…”

These are all generic statements that may or may not be true, but sound like they provide a basis for a denial.  Resist the tendency to believe what OPM says; ultimately, a Federal Disability Retirement application must comply with the laws which govern the administrative process, and may well have to go to an administrative judge to prove the issue.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for Federal and USPS Workers: Communication

As in all areas of law, a truism which may be applicable to a particular kind of practice of law applies both generally, as well as specifically to the process spoken of.  That is the nature of what constitutes a universal truth.  In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS, the governmental agency which makes the decision in a case (the Office of Personnel Management), will often communicate directly with the applicant regardless of whether the applicant is or is not represented by an Attorney.

Indeed, OPM will often go so far as to completely ignore the attorney, thereby failing to send a copy of the decision letter, or to request additional documents.  All such communication is directly to the applicant/client first and primarily, without regard to the representing attorney, in many cases.  With that in mind, it is very important that the applicant communicate with the attorney.  Further, because the Office of Personnel Management is a Federal Agency which oversees thousands of cases, files will often sit dormant on some desk, or letters and decisions will be sent out without checking on updated addresses, etc.

Because of this, it is important that a total effort in communication be engaged in, which means:  communicating with one’s attorney on any correspondence or contact with the Office of Personnel Management.  A Federal Disability Retirement case under FERS or CSRS must be a “total effort”; it is ultimately the responsibility of the applicant, in the eyes of OPM, to respond properly.  The attorney in a Federal Disability Retirement case may have the technical knowledge on how best to approach a case; it is the applicant who must still continue to be engaged in the process, in order for the entirety of the process of be workable.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: What Ifs

“What Ifs” are hypotheticals which can paralyze a process.  Often, such imaginary road blocks are pragmatic irrelevancies, and are better left alone.  Others, one should affirmatively confront.  

Thus:  “What if my Supervisor says…”  There are things in one’s control, and those which are not.  A Federal Disability Retirement application contains an implicit concept which must not be forgotten:  It is actually a Federal Medical Disability Retirement application. What the Supervisor says or doesn’t say is not ultimately relevant. Can the Supervisor’s Statement have an influence or impact?  Obviously.  But it is not one of those things which should be worried about, because it is beyond anyone’s control — for the most part.  

“What if my doctor won’t support my case?”  This is a hypothetical which one has control over, in filing for Federal Medical Disability Retirement benefits.  As such, one should make an appointment with the doctor before starting the process, or even contemplating starting the process, and have a frank discussion with the doctor.  Bifurcate those issues which one has control over, from those which one does not.  In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, one needs to confront the reality of today, in preparation for tomorrow’s future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire