Federal Disability Retirement: OPM’s Standard of Proof

In reviewing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the mandate of burden is determined both by statute and regulation, and the Merit Systems Protection Board reiterates the burden of proof in each of its decisions — that of proving one’s case by a “Preponderance of the Evidence“.  

This is a relatively low standard of proof — of showing that one is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS based upon a showing that, with all of the evidence considered, it is more likely than not that the Federal or Postal employee has shown that he or she cannot perform, because of one or more medical conditions, one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  

There is often a question as to whether this same standard of evidentiary showing applies to the Office of Personnel Management, and this question is posed because of the statements made in many of the denial letters (which then prompts a necessary request for Reconsideration, or an administrative appeal to the 2nd Stage of the process; or, if denied at the 2nd Stage — the Reconsideration Stage — then an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board) issued by the Office of Personnel Management, to wit:  The evidence you submitted did not show a “compelling” reason why you could not…; The medical evidence did not show that you had to be “excluded from the workplace completely”; and other statements which seems to require a higher showing than that of “preponderance of the evidence“. 

OPM is supposed to follow the same standard of proof — that of preponderance of the evidence.  Sometimes, they need to be reminded of it.  

However, inasmuch as the safety mechanism for review of an improper standard is an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, such a reminder often must take the form of an appeal.  Without the appeal basis, the Office of Personnel Management can ignore the relevant statutory burden of proof.  But then, that would not be the first time that an agency acted in a non-compliant manner.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Symptoms & Diagnosis

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the medical reports and treatment notes, office notes, etc., will often bifurcate and conceptually distinguish between a “diagnosis” of a medical condition, and the description of “symptoms” which the patient experiences.  

Thus, as a simplified example, on a physical level, one might have the diagnosis of “Shoulder Impingement Syndrome” or “Rotator Cuff Tendonitis” in a specific category in a medical report under “Diagnosis”, but in a narrative paragraph discussing the history of the symptoms manifested by the individual, there may be a reference to “chronic pain”, or “radiating pain”.  Similarly, in psychiatric cases, one might be diagnosed with “Major Depressive Disorder” or “Generalized Anxiety Disorder“, without being officially diagnosed with “Panic Disorder” or “Agoraphobia”, but in a discussion concerning the Federal Employee’s symptomatologies, there may be a reference to having “panic attacks” or being fearful of leaving the house or going out into the public.  

The conceptual bifurcation between “diagnosis” and “symptoms”, however, may (and perhaps should) be carefully brought together in completing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability.  Thus, while “pain”, “chronic pain”, “radiating pain”, etc., may not officially qualify as the officially diagnosed medical condition in a medical report, in preparing and formulating an Application for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it is important to interweave such symptoms if they are a prominent part of one’s medical conditions.  Similarly, “Panic Attacks”, even if merely described as a symptom, may be an important part — if not the “essence” of a psychiatric condition — of one’s medical condition, and it is important to include it as part of the diagnosis.  For, when an approval is granted from the Office of Personnel Management, the identified medical diagnosis should, if at all possible, include the most debilitating of medical conditions.  

That which is conceptually distinguished on a medical report need not necessarily dictate what is described and delineated on one’s Application for Disability Retirement.  Just some thoughts.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Applying the Legal Standard

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management, it is important to understand the legal criteria of “preponderance of the evidence”, to attempt to meet the legal criteria; to state and argue that the legal criteria has been met, and to reiterate and show how the legal criteria has been met.

Thus, as the Office of Personnel Management is a bureaucracy with multiple levels replete with clerical and administrative staff, it is important to present, to show, to reiterate, and to affirm:  the point to get across must be established in a succinct, effective, efficient manner, but it must be firmly established.

“Preponderance of the evidence” can be quite subjective, but within the context of such subjectivity, it encompasses the conceptual analogies of:  X is more likely than not; the quantitative weight of the evidence shows that the burden of proof has been met; the qualitative whole has proven that one is entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits; the compendium of evidence, both medical and supporting, shows that Mr. Y’s medical condition does indeed prevent him from performing one or more of the essential elements of his job; and similar conclusions to be reached as a result of the entirety of the evidence presented.

Of these analogies noted (which is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely an attempt to illustrate the meaning of the concept of “preponderance of the evidence”), the one which is most dangerous for people to embrace, is the “quantitative weight” of evidence.  For, ultimately, gathering a thick stack of medical documentation is the easiest way to put together a Federal Disability Retirement application, but the least effective.  And in the end, it is effectiveness which we seek, and not ease of completion.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: The Weight of Evidence

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the reason why it is important to understand, reflect upon, and have a practical knowledge of the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement issues — both in terms of statutes which govern and dictate the criteria for eligibility of Federal Disability Retirement benefits; the regulations which are propounded by the Office of Personnel Management; and the case laws which are administrative judicial opinions handed down (from the Merit Systems Protection Board, to the Full Board of the Merit Systems Protection Board; to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, etc.) — is that there is always a “trickle down” aspect to the evolving laws in any system of laws.  

Thus, the opinions handed down by Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board, as well as by Judges of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, are dictates and interpretation of statutory authority which are to be “followed” by the Federal Agency which is empowered to administer the decision-making process of Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  

Part of that application of law, for instance, is the “standard of proof” which must be applied, and in the case of all Federal Disability Retirement applications, the standard of proof to be applied is the “Preponderance of the Evidence” standard.  But what does that standard mean?  While entirely subjective at worst, and somewhat confusing at best, the individual words which make up the conceptual entirety provides some inkling of what must be understood.  

Whether qualitatively or quantitatively, one must have a showing of “preponderance” — of more, better, or of greater persuasive effect than not.  Thus, whether by sheer volume of the evidence presented, or in the quality of the presentation, the persuasive impact must be accepted as more likely than not, by the Office of Personnel Management or, if appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, then by the Administrative Judge.  

It is important to not only apply a standard, but to have an understanding of the standard.  For, only by understanding can one then determine its proper application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Conceptual Clarifications of Duties

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is helpful to make an initial conceptual distinction between the type of positional duties which one performs for the Federal Service — whether sedentary and administrative; whether it involves the necessity of on-demand travel or deployment; whether the particular medical condition requires special medical care or technology and apparatus which is not available upon travel or deployment; how physical; weight lifting requirements; how repetitive; whether driving is required; whether and to what extent it is cognitive-intensive; and multiple other considerations.

Such bifurcation and conceptual distinctions are important for purposes of informally categorizing a descriptive analysis for correspondence of duties-to-medical-conditions.  Thus, when the time comes to formulate the narrative portion of one’s application for Federal Disability Retirement, it becomes easier to effectively delineate the impact of one’s medical conditions upon one’s positional duties.

It is one thing to experience a medical condition; it is quite another to effectively describe the medical condition, utilizing the proper and accurate adjectives and descriptive word-pictures to a third party; and it is even further another matter to describe one’s medical condition and its impact upon one’s ability/inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  To perform the intellectual exercise of mentally delineating a list of one’s positional duties in one column; a list of symptomatologies in a separate column; a correspondence of impact between the columns (but remember, it should never be simply a one-to-one correspondence,and cross-overs and multiple overlays reflect the “real world” of medical conditions and their impact upon one’s positional duties), is a helpful exercise in the presentation of the “final product” to the Office of Personnel Management.

In preparing and formulating a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is important to “think through” the administrative process, in order to exponentially increase the chances of success at each stage of the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Employee Medical Retirement: Describing One’s Medical Conditions

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS from the Office of Personnel Management, the conundrum which one faces immediately is to attempt to overcome the seeming inability of third parties (OPM Personnel included) to understand, comprehend, relate to, and ultimately “feel” a sense of empathy and compassion for the particular genre of medical conditions a Federal or Postal worker suffers from.  

While the entire administrative process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is based upon a legal criteria, with a standard of proof set by law — that of “preponderance of the evidence” (which, simply put, means that one must prove that something is “more likely” the case than not — a relatively low standard of proof in the potential options of applying various legal standards) — it nevertheless comes down to having a fellow human being review, analyze, assess and evaluate one’s Federal Disability Retirement application at the Office of Personnel Management.  

Yes, there is an applicable legal criteria which is applied by the Office of Personnel Management.  Yes, there is a set of conforming documentation which must be submitted.  Yes, there are Standard Forms to be completed.  Yet, as with all processes of review, no evaluative process can be merely characterized as an objective calculus; otherwise, the eligibility requirement of a Federal Disability Retirement application should be able to be determined by a computer program.  

While such a possibility may well occur in the not-too-distant future, for the present, an actual person (although this is sometimes questioned, also, based upon the unresponsiveness of OPM and the voicemail messages one encounters) at the Office of Personnel Management must review, evaluate, and determine the viability of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  As such, part of the key to the success of the administrative process must be in the descriptive narrative of one’s medical conditions, their impact upon one’s ability/inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, and the qualitative and quantitative impact, direct or otherwise, upon one’s life.  

Here again, a cold, objective calculus should not be the only approach.  The “human factor” should be included — and to do so, one must extrapolate and apply all of the descriptive tools available in the English language.  

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement for Federal Workers: A Federal Issue

For many legal issues which are encountered by most people, an attorney from the state within which he or she resides is necessary and proper.  This is because the laws of each state are different, and requires the expertise of an attorney who is licensed to practice law within that particular jurisdiction.

However, preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management is a Federal issue, not a state issue.  As such, as an attorney who is licensed from one state, that attorney is able and allowed to represent Federal and Postal workers from all across the United States.  

Being “able to and allowed”, of course, is a separate issue from whether a particular attorney is competent, knowledgeable, and experienced enough to perform such work — but those are questions and issues which should be reviewed, determined and inquired into, by each Federal and Postal worker who is seeking an attorney who purports to be an “expert” in the area of Federal Disability Retirement law.  

Such a basis for determination of an attorney’s competency in any area of law should be based upon multiple criteria, including:  Questions asked and answered during an initial consultation; review of any articles written on the subject; information gathered on the attorney’s website — especially the substantive content of any claims made, or any discussion concerning the subject of Federal Disability Retirement law — and a general sense of responsiveness to an initial query.  

Because preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application is a “Federal” issue and not a state issue, it is likely that the Federal or Postal worker will never personally meet the attorney in a Federal Disability Retirement case, and instead, all communication and contact will be by telephone, email, fax, overnight delivery, etc.  This would be a natural occurrence — just as you will never actually see anyone from the Office of Personnel Management or from the Merit Systems Protection Board.  

Remember, preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management is a Federal issue, and not a state one, and therefore the attorney who is licensed in a particular state can effectively represent anyone, anywhere, both in the United States, and in other countries.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney