FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Beyond the MSPB

Not all cases that should be won, are won. No one can win 100% of the time; think about it — even the best Major League Baseball players strike out at least 2 out of every 3 at-bats. Most strike out every 3 out of 4 times. Fortunately, I am able to pass through a high percentage of my clients at Stages 1 or 2 of the Disability Retirement process, and that is how it should be.

Every now and again, however, a case must go to the Merit Systems Protection Board; and out of the small number that must get to that point, an even smaller number goes before an Administrative Judge who is clearly anti-employee, and ignores the law and sides with the Office of Personnel Management. Fortunately, most MSPB judges are fair and understand that disability retirement laws favor, for the most part, approval of disability retirement benefits. In those instances where, for whatever reason, a case has been denied at Stages 1 & 2, and the MSPB Judge completely ignores the strong and unequivocal testimony of the doctor, then there is still a good shot at winning the case at the 4th level — a Petition for Full Review.

Such a Stage must be approached by pointing out the legal deficiencies and, indeed, the Hearing Judge’s complete mis-application of the law. It must be done delicately and respectfully, however, because you are essentially asking that the Full Board (a panel of 3 Administrative Judges) reverse one of the Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board — to declare that the Administrative Judge “erred” in applying the law. It is possible to do — but it must be done with care, respect, and technical expertise.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The “Nexus” Between the Reconsideration Stage and the Merit Systems Protection Board

It is an accepted fact that there is a “psychological” aspect to almost everything in life, and this is no less true in the field of disability retirement law.  The “psychological” aspect is the nexus, or bridge, from the Reconsideration Stage to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  From OPM’s viewpoint, this is the last chance to make a decision on a case, before it is taken out of the hands — and therefore “control” — of the Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, OPM wants to be able to “justify” that its decision was reasonable, and legally-based and legally sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of an Administrative Judge.   From the Applicant’s viewpoint, it is a chance to show that OPM was unreasonable for not approving the case.

While it is true that all cases which come before the MSPB are heard de novo (meaning, anew, without regard to prior decisions by OPM), OPM nevertheless never wants to be viewed as ignoring the law and appearing unreasonable, and the Applicant wants OPM to appear unreasonable in the face of the medical evidence already provided.  This is the psychology behind trying to convince OPM to approve a case at the Reconsideration Stage.  Thus, at the Reconsideration Stage, it is important to cite applicable law to OPM, to corner them into a position of appearing unreasonable if the disability retirement application is denied.  On the other hand, the reasonings and underpinning of foundational bases provided in Reconsideration Decisions are often far more superior and accurate than those handed down at the Initial Stage.  In any event, always remember that there is a “psychological” aspect to everything, and it is the duty of an attorney to identify it, use it to the best advantage possible, and cite the appropriate law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: When it Gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

For whatever reason, a certain percentage of cases reach the third level in the process of applying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits:  The Merit Systems Protection Board.  If an individual is unrepresented at this level, the identical problem as that which occurs in any courtroom presents itself:  an attorney representing an individual provides an appearance of “objectivity” to the administrative judge; the advocacy on behalf of a disability retirement applicant has greater credibility, the arguments made on his/her behalf are now greater efficacy and weight, merely because the person arguing (the attorney) and the person for whom the arguments are made (the disability applicant), are not one and the same.

Whether fair or not, it is important that a disability retirement applicant obtain representation at this level, because Administrative Judges are more likely to listen to the arguments made by an attorney, precisely because the Attorney does not — other than the professional reputation of winning or losing the case — have a “personal” vested interest in the case itself.  As such, the arguments of an attorney have an appearance of objectivity, and it is that weight of objectivity which may be the deciding factor as to whether the applicant will get the disability retirement annuity, or not.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Petition for Full Review

The next step beyond the Merit Systems Protection Board, of course, is a choice: You can either file an immediate appeal to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, or file a Petition for Review before the Merit Systems Protection Board, where the decision of the Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board will be reviewed by a panel of 3 Administrative Judges.

Normally, I recommend taking the latter route, only because it allows for another step to win, as opposed to putting all of one’s eggs in the proverbial “one basket”. If an individual has put on a case without being represented, by going through OPM’s procedures, then putting on a case at the MSPB, I will rarely accept a case at the Petition before the Full Board level.

My reasons are essentially as follows: First, it was not “my case”. The applicable criteria to have an MSPB case reversed by filing a Petition for Full Review, is to point out an “error of law” that the Judge made. If I put on a case before an administrative judge at the MSPB, I try and put on “my case” — one that I believe in; one that I am an advocate for; one that I am passionate about, because it is a case on behalf of a client whom I represent.

That is why I win most of my cases, both at the OPM level, as well as before the MSPB. When someone else has gone through the process, it is simply not “my case”. To nitpick for an error of law that the administrative judge had made, when it was not my case, and not the case-laws that I relied upon in putting on my case, is simply something that I have little interest in doing. That is not to say that a case cannot be won at a Petition for Full Review. I have won enough of them; it is a matter of pointing out the error of law which the administrative judge made; but a passionate argument is essential to winning such a review.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Merit Systems Protection Board: Hearings Are Not Inevitable

The third step in the process of filing and obtaining disability retirement from the Office of Personnel Management is to appeal the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is initiated after a disability retirement application has been denied twice: First, at the initial stage, then, upon a request for reconsideration and an opportunity to submit additional medical and other documentation, if the Office of Personnel Management denies the application a second time, then the Applicant has the right to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Such a case is then set to be heard by an Administrative Judge, and mandated to be completed within 120 days from the time it is appealed. Many applicants who go into this third stage have the unwarranted belief that a Hearing is an inevitability, and that there is no further opportunity to convince OPM to reverse themselves, or change their minds. That is simply not the case. Often, the OPM representative at the MSPB level is much more attuned to the evidentiary level required, and will entertain the receipt and review of an updated medical report, or additional diagnostic tests, or more detailed treatment notes, etc. The mere fact that OPM denied the application at the first two stages, and the fact that the jurisdictional landscape has now changed from OPM to the MSPB, does not mean that OPM’s mind cannot be changed. The key is to listen carefully at what OPM’s representative is saying at a Prehearing Conference, or even earlier if contact is made with him/her. By listening and complying with a reasonable request, it can save the applicant needless time and expenses (for the testimony of a doctor can, indeed, be expensive), and have the ultimate outcome that the applicant desires: approval of a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement Cases Before an MSPB Judge

When putting on a disability retirement case under FERS or CSRS before the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is essential that an applicant (if unrepresented) and the attorney (if represented, the applicant need not participate in any Prehearing Conference, but will obviously encounter the Judge during the Telephone Hearing) listens to the Administrative Judge during any Pre-Hearing Conference.

Most Administrative Judges are actually willing to help the appellant. While judges are unable to render legal advice or to actually lend counsel to the appellant, many administrative judges go out of their way to clearly outline for the Appellant the tools needed to persuade and win the case. Administrative Judges, for the most part, actually want to root for the appellant, and want you to put on a good case to persuade them to rule in your favor. In my opinion, an appellant should have an attorney at the Merit Systems Protection Board. At a Prehearing Conference, I listen carefully at any special concerns or comments which an Administrative Judge may make — because such concerns are often the key to winning the case for my client. Remember — judges are human; they want to root for the underdog; they want you to win your case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Merit Systems Protection Board: A Different Animal

When an individual has attempted to obtain disability retirement under FERS or CSRS on his/her own, but has failed at both the initial stage as well as the Reconsideration Stage, while it is true that a Hearing before an Administrative Judge at the MSPB is to be heard de novo (meaning, heard “anew” and where new evidence may be submitted), it is always important to try and introduce something new above and beyond medical reports and records. This is why I normally insist upon having at least one doctor testify over the telephone. That way, everything can be presented and exposed: the Judge is able to hear first-hand the medical assessment and opinion of the treating doctor, and allow the doctor to be subjected to as much cross-examination as OPM’s representative wants.

This latter aspect is important for the administrative judge to see — that we (the applicant and the attorney) have nothing to hide; the opinion of the doctor is unequivocal and informed, and none of OPM’s questions can shake that opinion. This takes careful preparation and a systematic, thoughtful series of questions and answers between the attorney and the doctor, to meet each of the legal criteria demanded for approval of a disability retirement claim.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Remember the Details

At each state of attempting to get a Federal disability retirement application approved, it is important to “remember the details”. For example, at the Merit Systems Protection Board level, in conducting a Hearing, remember that if the best medical evidence/testimony you are able to provide is through a health professional other than an “M.D.” (e.g., a therapist, a Nurse Practitioner, a Chiropractor, etc.), always point out the unique credentials of the provider, to include whether in the particular state in which he/she practices, if greater latitude and responsibilities are given to the practitioner.

Thus, it may be that in one state a Nurse Practitioner can exam, diagnose, and prescribe a medication regimen without the direct oversight of a medical doctor, whereas in other states such latitude may not be allowed. This should be pointed out to the Judge, to emphasize greater credibility of the testimony of the practitioner. Further, remember that in Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, November, 2007), the Court therein reiterated that the medical documentation/evidence required must come from a ‘licensed physician or other appropriate practitioner’, and so long as that medical practitioner utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and that which is “consistent with generally accepted professional standards”, the testimony cannot be undermined. Use the strengths of the case you have, and emphasize the little details that matter.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire