OPM Disability Retirement: Distinguishing between Diagnoses and Symptomatologies

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS (Federal Employee’s Retirement System) or CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System), in preparing and formulating the Applicant’s Statement of Disability on Standard Form 3112A, it is important to distinguish between the medical conditions which are diagnosed, from the symptoms which are experienced by the Federal or Postal employee.  The focus is often upon the latter (the symptoms) as opposed to the former (the officially diagnosed medical conditions), as it should be because of the nature of the requirements in proving a Federal Disability Retirement case with the Office of Personnel Management.

By that is meant the following: Because one must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that one is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits from OPM, by exhibiting a nexus between one’s medical conditions and one’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, the descriptive analysis of such bridging between one’s medical condition and the impact upon one’s ability/inability to perform the essential elements of one’s particular job, is quite naturally focused upon the symptomatologies which one experiences.

The blurring of the lines between the “official” medical condition as itemized in a list of diagnoses, as opposed to the descriptive delineation of the exhibited symptoms, or the symptoms which are subjectively experienced and (often) correlated by objective radiological reports, is a natural occurrence. Often, the two are (and should be) deliberately intermingled in the narrative description of the Applicant’s Statement of Disability. However, one should always write the narrative portion of the SF 3112A with the view towards the future potential issues which may arise: that of being “disabled” for a specifically-identified medical condition.

Sometimes the OPM Representative will specifically identify a medical condition; sometimes, no such identification will occur. Then, there are times when the lines between “diagnosis” and “symptoms” naturally crosses — as in, “Chronic Pain Syndrome” as distinguished from “chronic pain”. Blurring the lines in a discussion is expected and should be applied in formulating one’s Applicant’s Statement of Disability; but such blurring should occur with deliberation and purpose, and not just because one does not recognize the distinction between the two.

As with everything in life, the consequences of doing something by accident are quite different from that which results from a purposive and deliberate action.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: The “Mixed Case”

The “Grab-bag” approach of annotating every medical condition on an Application for Federal Disability Retirement should be distinguished and differentiated from a “Mixed-Case” approach.  The former contains some unintended consequences (i.e., of being approved for a minor medical condition), while the latter is a formulation of multiple medical conditions, any one of which may be a basis for a Federal Disability Retirement application, but the combination of which will strengthen the case as a whole. 

By “Mixed-Case” does not necessarily include a mixture of psychiatric and physical conditions (although it might); rather, the conceptual term which is used here is meant to be a compendium of the primary medical conditions from which a Federal or Postal worker suffers, along with a descriptive narrative of the symptoms which are manifested. 

By preparing, formulating and completing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability (SF 3112A) in this manner, it satisfies the concerns which lead to the “Grab-bag” approach, but prevents the danger of having a Federal Disability Retirement application approved based upon a “minor” medical condition, by conceptually differentiating between diagnosed medical conditions v. symptoms, while at the same time including all of the medical conditions relevant to one’s Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Flexibility of Language

Language is inherently a flexible tool; it is meant to communicate, and while precision in communication is the defining purpose in the use of the tool, often the essence of language must nevertheless be flexible enough to embrace other, correlative concepts. To limit the tool of language often will lead to undermining the very purpose of the use of such language.  

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the use of language in preparing, formulating and describing the interaction between the medical conditions and how it impacts one’s job duties, must allow for some level of flexibility.  For example, if certain chronic symptomatologies result in a mis-diagnosis of a medical condition, should a later (revised) diagnosis be allowed to be argued to the Office of Personnel Management after it has been filed?  

The answer to the question is contained in how the Applicant’s Statement of Disability on Standard Form 3112A is formulated.  If one merely lists the diagnosed medical conditions without describing the symptoms, then the language used has restricted the flexibility of post-filing inclusion.  On the other hand, if one combines the various medical diagnoses, but also includes a descriptive discussion of the symptoms, then the answer is likely, “yes”.  The use of language should be one of precision; how one utilizes the tools of language, however, should remain flexible.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Symptoms & Diagnoses

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, it is not that a formal diagnosis is unimportant; rather, it is that the diagnosis itself is merely a starting point and does not reveal the story which must be told in order to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

From a medical viewpoint, for treatment purposes and from the perspective of the treating doctor, identifying the source of the pain, entertaining the various treatment options, considering which treatment modalities will be most effective, etc., all play into identifying the proper source of the symptoms.  Thus, from a treatment perspective, identifying the medical condition by ascribing the proper diagnosis is of paramount importance.  A doctor often cannot begin the proper course of treatment unless and until formal identification is established. To that extent, it is also the beginning point for the treating doctor, in that once a source of pain or origin of symptoms is diagnosed, then various treatment modalities can be considered.  

For purposes of becoming eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, it is also merely a starting point.  As the Office of Personnel Management often likes to point out, “The mere existence of a medical condition does not mean that a person is disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.”  While quoting OPM as the source of legal authority is normally unwise, nevertheless one must grant that this particular statement is true within its limited context, and must be kept in mind when preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Diagnosis v. Symptoms

Is an official diagnosis important?  It certainly makes for a “clean” Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS, and indeed, sometimes the Office of Personnel Management will question the validity of a Federal Disability Retirement application if a treating doctor equivocates on ascribing a clean, clear-cut diagnosis.  But, as they say in philosophy, and specifically in symbolic logic, while a medical diagnosis may be necessary, it is not sufficient.  That is, while a medical diagnosis is often necessary in order to easily identify the medical condition, it is not sufficient to get a Federal or Postal worker an approved Federal Disability Retirement claim.  This is because, beyond an official diagnosis of a medical condition, it is important to describe the manifestation of symptoms, and how those symptoms impact one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job.  To that extent, it is analogous to the story of a primitive tribesman who feared having his picture taken, because to have one’s image captured was to circumscribe the essence of an individual.  Similarly, while a medical diagnosis identifies the “what” of a condition, it fails to show the endless “hows” of that condition — as in, how does it impact one’s job, one’s personal life, one’s sense of well-being, self-image, etc.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: How Many Should Be Listed (Part 2)?

The listing of the medical conditions in a Federal Disability Retirement application, as it is descriptively written on the Applicant’s Statement of Disability (SF 3112A) for FERS & CSRS disability retirement, to be submitted to the Office of Personnel Management, is a separate issue from the creative description of the symptoms which the applicant experiences as a result of the identified listing of the medical conditions.  Thus, a distinction should be made between the “official” diagnosed medical conditions (which should be limited in number, for reasons previously delineated) and the multiple and varied “symptoms” which result from the listed medical conditions.  Thus, while one may suffer from the medical condition termed as “Fibromyalgia”, the symptoms can be multiple:  chronic and diffuse pain; impact upon cognitive abilities, inability to focus and concentrate, symptoms which are often termed as “fibro-fog”, etc. 

When the Office of Personnel Management approves a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS and identifies the specific medical condition by which it is approved, it will identify the medical condition, and not the symptoms.  This distinction is important because, when an applicant prepares the narrative to show the Office of Personnel Management what he or she suffers from, the differentiation between conditions and symptoms is important to recognize when creatively and descriptively writing the narrative of one’s medical conditions.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Symptoms Versus Diagnosis

If disability retirement were merely a matter of determining the proper diagnosis of a medical condition, and having a doctor ascribe a percentage rating of disability, then the process of disability retirement would substantively be altered, and perhaps there would be far fewer cases to adjudicate at the Merit Systems Protection Board level. For, if the criteria were that ‘cut and dry’, there would be little for OPM and the applicant & the applicant’s lawyer to argue over. However, it rarely is that ‘cut and dry’ — because the major battle is rarely over the diagnosis; it is rarely over an issue concerning a percentage ascription of disability; rather, it is over the symptoms manifested, the significance of such symptoms upon the type of work one does, and in the impact such symptoms have upon the essential elements of one’s job.

That is why descriptive terms are important in disability retirement law. It is not so important ‘what it is’, as opposed to ‘how it is characterized’. From this perspective, it is important for a disability retirement attorney to be more of a poet than to be cold and analytical — although, the best approach would be to have a little bit of both. Remember to always know the context — the applicant will not be standing in front of an OPM representative showing how terrible the applicant’s medical condition is; there will be no visual presentation; everything is based upon a narrative — the applicant’s statement, the medical documentation, the legal memorandum of the attorney, etc. Thus, it is all-important for the attorney who represents a disability retirement applicant to have a good command of the English language.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire