OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Actions and the Bruner Presumption

Agency actions separating a Federal or Postal employee from Federal Service often contain language which comes close to allowing for a Federal or Postal employee to assert the “Bruner Presumption” (that legal presumption which essentially states that the declaration and admission by the Agency triggers a legal presumption that a Federal or Postal employee is entitled to, by a matter of law, to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS), but not close enough.  

Such language will instead be couched in references to medical documentation which has been previously reviewed by the Agency; will embrace an acknowledgement that the Federal or Postal employee has a “medical condition”; and will sometimes even entertain verbiage evincing sympathy for the Federal or Postal Worker’s “situation” — but still will base the removal upon other considerations, such as “excessive absences”, “failure to maintain a regular work schedule”, etc.  

The question ultimately then becomes:  Is it important, leaving aside relevance, to fight the agency to amend or otherwise re-characterize the original proposal to remove, in order to obtain the Bruner Presumption?  

The Bruner Presumption is a legal mechanism which gains greater weight and importance when a Federal Disability Retirement application has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management (both at the Initial Stage of the process, than at the Reconsideration Stage), and one therefore finds one’s self before an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board.  But such appearance before the MSPB presumably means that there are other problems with a case — most often, insufficient medical documentation.  

The Bruner Presumption aside, the Federal or Postal employee must still prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, one’s case, by submitting sufficient medical documentation.  The Bruner Presumption is simply that “extra” ingredient that may be helpful if all other factors have been met in proving a Federal Disability Retirement case.

While helpful, it is not a certainty for an approval.  While better to have than not, one must still prove one’s case.  While triggered most effectively at the MSPB, a less-than-Bruner-trigger can still be argued at all stages of the process.  Just some thoughts.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: Misreading the Law

As the old adage goes, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The Bruner Presumption is one of those legal tools which is often misunderstood and misapplied. The legal presumption stems from a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which basically declared (among other things) that when a Federal or Postal employee is separated from Federal Service for his or her medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, that there is a “presumption” that the Federal or Postal employee is entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management.  

Does this make it a certainty that one will receive an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application from the Office of Personnel Management?  No. Does it enhance the chances of obtaining an approval from the Office of Personnel Management?  Maybe.  

One must remember that the Office of Personnel Management, at least for the first 2 stages of the process, does not assign attorneys as Case Managers to review a Federal Disability Retirement application.  As such, relying too heavily on the “Bruner Presumption” would be a mistake.  Further, to wait for the agency to terminate you based upon your medical inability to perform your job so that you can argue that you “have the Bruner Presumption” would be foolhardy.  It is a legal tool.  In order to use it, you must apply it in the right manner.  It would be like using a screwdriver to open up a can of peas.  As another old adage goes:  “Leave it to the professionals“. 

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

Federal and Postal Service Disability Retirement: After Separation from Service

It should be well established for anyone who has looked into Federal Disability Retirement issues, that a person has one (1) year from the time of separation from Federal Service to file for Federal Disability retirement benefits.  Separation from Federal Service can take many different forms:  Resignation; separation for cause; administrative separation based upon one’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; etc.  The latter of these delineated forms (separation for medical inability to perform) is obviously the most beneficial to one contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement (first and foremost because it allows for the Bruner Presumption to be applied). 

On the other hand, separation based upon a resignation is often neutral for issues concerning disability retirement (unless, of course, one has been foolish to put into his or her letter of resignation that the reason for the resignation is to go and become a professional poker player for the next year — but even then, if a medical condition existed prior to resignation, one might still be eligible for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS); and, obviously, if the resignation was accompanied by a medical reason, and that particular medical reason was reflected in the SF 50, all the better.  Even separation for adverse actions — if there was a medical condition which existed prior to separation — can be explained away and fought for.  The point here is, regardless of the nature, reason and expressed rationale for separation from service, if a medical condition existed prior to separation from service, such that the medical condition prevented one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, there is a viable basis for filing for, and fighting for, Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Clarity over Question

While a compromise position on certain issues in Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS may be the best that one may hope for, obviously, clarity over question is the better course to have.  Thus, for instance, in a removal action, where a Federal or Postal employee is being removed for his or her “excessive absences,” it is best to have the proposed removal and the decision of removal to reference one or more medical conditions, or at least some acknowledgment by the Agency, that would explicate — implicitly or otherwise — that the underlying basis for the “excessive absences” were as a result of the medical condition.  There are cases which clearly state that where excessive absences are referenced by medical conditions, the Bruner Presumption would apply in a Federal Disability Retirement case. 

Now, in those cases where the removal action merely removes a Federal or Postal employee for “excessive absences”, there are other methods which may win over an Administrative Judge to apply the Bruner Presumption.  Such “other methods” may include emails or correspondence, at or near the time of the removal action, which appears to put the Agency on notice about specific medical conditions, including attachments of doctor’s reports, medical notations, etc.  Such concurrent documentation can convince an Administrative Judge that, indeed, the question as to whether the “excessive absences” were as a result of a medical condition, and whether the Agency was aware of such an underlying basis, is clarified by documents which provide a proper context within the reasonable time-frame of the issuance of the proposal to remove and the decision to remove.  It is always better, of course, to have clarity over a question, but sometimes the question can be clarified with additional and concurrent documentation.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Clarification of Issues for FERS & CSRS Employees

In moderating the Martindale-Hubbell Message Board for Federal Disability Retirement Issues, two areas of law need clarification for those out there contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS: First, the issue of whether a potential applicant needs to wait to be separated from Federal Service in order to obtain the “Bruner Presumption“, before filing for disability retirement.

The short answer is an unequivocal, “No”. To wait for an agency hoping that they will separate you for your medical inability to perform your job, is like waiting for your rich uncle to die and leave you an inheritance: It may never happen, and even if it does, it may not be worth it. While the Bruner Presumption is a nice additional weapon to have in arguing for an approval, it is not a necessary element.

The most important element in an OPM disability retirement case is to have a supportive doctor. Application of the Bruner Presumption — a recognition by the Agency that they cannot accommodate you, and further, that you cannot perform your job as a result of your medical condition, while a weapon in arguing for an approval to OPM, is not necessary in most cases. The point is to make sure your supporting medical documentation is strong, thereby negating the need for the Bruner Presumption.

Further, another common confusion which people have is what it means to be “separated from service”. The Statute of Limitations in Federal Disability Retirement cases is 1 year from the date a Federal Employee is separated from Federal Service. The 1-year does NOT begin when a person is on LWOP, or when a person is on FMLA, or any other reason. The 1-year begins when a person is officially terminated, separated, or taken off of the rolls of Federal Service, or when a person resigns from the Federal Service. It is 1 year from that date that a person must file for Federal disability retirement benefits, or you lose your right forever to do so.

Second, and finally (at least for this particular Blog piece), with respect to the 80% rule — where a person can earn income up to 80% of what one’s former Federal job currently pays: this is in addition to the disability retirement annity that a person receives.

Think about it, and it is logical: disability annuity is not “earned income”; the 80% rule applies only to “earned income”. Thus, for example, a person who was making $60,000 at a Federal job, who goes out on disability retirement, would get $36,000 the first year under FERS (60%), and $24,000 per year every year thereafter (40%). At the same time, that person can go out and make up to $48,000 per year (80% of $60,000), with that amount going up slightly each year (assuming that the payscale in the Federal system goes up each year for that same pay and grade). I hope this clarifies some of the issues that may have given rise to some confusion.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The Bruner Presumption

Just some comments about this important concept and one which all disability retirement applicants should be aware of. It is well-established law that an employee’s removal for his or her physical inability to perform the essential functions of his job or position, constitutes prima facie evidence that he is entitled to disability retirement as a matter of law, and that the burden of production then shifts to OPM to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the applicant is not entitled to disability retirement benefits. See Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993); and Marczewski v. Office of Personnel Management, 80 M.S.P.R. 343 (1998). What this means, essentially, is that if a Federal or Postal employee is removed for his or her medical inability to perform his/her job, the “burden of production” is placed onto OPM. It is as if OPM must “disprove” a disability retirement case, as opposed to an individual having to prove his/her right to disability retirement. It is a “prima facie” case, in that, by having your Agency remove you for your inability to perform your job, it is considered a valid case “on its face”. Further, in more recent cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board has held that the Bruner Presumption also applies where “removal for extended absences is equivalent to removal for physical inability to perform where it is accompanied by specifications indicating that the decision to remove was based on medical documentation suggesting that the appellant was disabled and unable to perform her duties.” McCurdy v. OPM, DA-844E-03-0088-I-1 (April 30, 2004), citing as authority Ayers-Kavtaradze v. Office of Personnel Management, 91 M.S.P.R. 397 (2002). This means that the removal itself need not specifically state that you are being removed for your medical inability to perform your job; it can remove you for other reasons stated, such as “extended absences”, as long as you can establish a paper-trail showing that those extended absences were based upon a medical reason.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney