Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Beyond the MSPB

With certain notable exceptions (e.g., documents which could not be obtained prior to or during the Hearing; an SSDI approval which was awarded after the close of the record, etc.), the Hearing which is set for the Merit Systems Protection Board (better known by its acronym, the “MSPB”) is the time and place to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a Federal or Postal employee is eligible to meet each of the legal criteria in a Federal Disability Retirement case.

MSPB Hearings for Federal Disability Retirement applications are performed telephonically; but beyond the time to submit all additional medical documentation and have any witnesses testify, it is the time to set the stage for a future Petition for Review (PFR) or an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Any legal issues concerning the eligibility criteria, accommodations, sufficiency of medical documentation, etc., needs to be argued at this stage of the process, in order to be able to make the argument later that the Administrative Judge committed “legally reversible” errors in his or her Initial Decision on the case.  As with anything well-built, a solid foundation must be prepared, and in the arena of legal battles, the introduction of clear legal precedent is what establishes the foundation for a future appeal.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement for Federal Workers: The MSPB

The Merit Systems Protection Board is the arena, in a Federal Disability Retirement application, where the issues are taken out of the control of the Office of Personnel Management for an independent review of a Federal or Postal employee’s disability application to obtain the benefit.  In a Federal Disability Retirement application, the Office of Personnel Management is given an opportunity (twice — at the initial stage of the process, then at the Reconsideration Stage) to make the “right” decision (in my view, “right” being an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, at least for my clients).  

If that decision is a denial, at both levels, then the applicant has the right and opportunity to file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  At that level, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Federal or Postal employee must prove that he or she meets the criteria, under the law, to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Some de minimus extent of discovery is engaged in; a Prehearing Statement defining the issues and identifying the proposed list of witnesses must be prepared; and, finally, a Hearing is set.  It is the forum in which someone other than OPM will have a fresh opportunity to review the case, and this is a good thing.  Otherwise, only the fox would be guarding the hen house, and under that scenario, there would be very few hens left alive, if any.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Process at the MSPB

When a FERS or CSRS disability retirement application has made its way in the “process” to the “Third Stage” — the Merit Systems Protection Board — then I (as an attorney) must be unequivocal in my recommendation:  You need an attorney.  I believe that individuals who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits should retain a competent attorney at every stage of the process, but there are always considerations of financial ability, and perhaps other considerations, which prevent someone from hiring an attorney at the initial stages of the process. 

At the MSPB level, however, it is important for two (2) reasons (there are many, many other reasons as well, but for brevity’s sake, I choose the main reasons):  1.  It is extremely important to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you meet the eligibility requirements, to an Administrative Judge, who is both a lawyer and a Judge, and therefore has the knowledge and background to make a reasoned assessment of the evidence presented, and 2.  You must be able to present the case in such a way that, if the Administrative Judge makes an error in his or her decision, you are prepared to appeal the case to the next level.  In order to be able to appeal the case to the next level, you must know the law, be able to present your evidence at the MSPB in accordance with the law, and therefore be able to argue that a decision rendered against you is in violation of the law.  In order to do this, you need an Attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Thank the Medical Professionals

If not for the doctors, disability retirement would obviously not be a possibility.  Of course, one may make the self-evident statement that being supportive of a Federal Disability Retirement application is simply part of a doctor’s job; and, to some extent, that would be true.  Doctors should indeed be willing to write up supportive medical narrative reports for their patients. 

Nevertheless, it is because of the doctor, the effort expended, the willingness to testify at a Merit Systems Protection Board Hearing, that the Office of Personnel Management even listens, or reverses a prior denial, and grants a disability retirement application.  Especially when a case gets denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, it becomes crucial to have the cooperation of the treating doctor to testify in an MSPB Hearing.  This is normally done by telephone, thereby making it a minimal imposition upon the doctor’s time.  Indeed, I often only take a total of 30 minutes of the doctor’s time, including preparation and actual testimony, for an MSPB Hearing.  But the very fact that the doctor is willing to testify — to speak to the Administrative Judge directly to give his or her medical opinion — is often enough to convince OPM to change course, and grant the disability retirement benefits. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Denials II

It is, indeed, frustrating when a governmental agency makes life-impacting decisions which seem to be spurious and capricious. A review of a disability retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is supposed to be thorough, with sound reasoning and a fair application of the law. And, in all fairness, the majority of cases appear to meet that standard. It may well be, of course, that since all approval letters of disability retirement applications are standard templates, with boilerplate language and instructions, and since most of my cases are approved at the first level, the impression left is that OPM does a good job in reviewing the cases.

When a case is disapproved, however, it is often the case that the denial is based upon factors which defy logic, which appear to have little or no rational basis, and which selectively focuses upon a narrow reading of the medical reports and records. Thus, often the OPM Representative will take a statement out of context, and declare that the doctor stated X when a full reading of the medical report shows that the doctor actually stated Y. This is unfortunate, and does not reflect the careful review, analysis, and fair rendering of a decision made by most OPM representatives, but occurs often enough to be of concern. On the bright side, however, is that there is always the ability to take it completely out of the hands of OPM, after a second denial — and allow an administrative judge to review it objectively, at the Merit Systems Protection Board. That is why the MSPB was created and exists — to have a third party, objective body review the decision-making process of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial II

It is important to always “define”, “corner”, and “circumscribe” any denial from the Office of Personnel Management.  If you do not, then what happens at the next level is that it becomes a “de novo” process.  Now, one might argue that all disability retirement appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board are de novo, anyway.  That is true enough — meaning, that all of the evidence is looked at “anew” and without prejudice from any previous finding by the Office of Personnel Management. 

Yet, there is the “legal” definition of de novo, and the practical effect of de novo; often, the Administrative Judge at the MSPB will, at a PreHearing Conference, turn to OPM and say, Listen, OPM, it seems that the only reason why it was initially denied was because of X, Y & Z; the applicant certainly answered X & Y in his/her reconsideration answer; is the only thing you are looking for is Z?  What this does is to narrow the issue.  Often, to save time, face, aggravation and other things, OPM will concede the narrowing of such issues, and this is true if you respond to their administrative queries by defining what they are asking for, then providing it to them, then showing how it has been provided to them, so that they are “cornered”.  Thereafter, if it gets denied and it needs to go to the MSPB, the Hearing can then proceed with a narrower, streamlined and limited number of issues to prove.  Again, the reason why it is important to define what it is that OPM is asking for, is not only for the “present” case, but in preparation for the potential “future” case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire