Medical Retirement Benefits for US Government Employees: Watchful Eyes

The falcon flies in our midst; with an unknown distance of its perimeter to prey, it suddenly appears, perched with watchful eyes for squirrels, rabbits, other birds, etc.  Its flight is silent and graceful, and long before people realize its presence, the silence and sudden muteness of wildlife activity reveals the fear imposed by its mere appearance.  It flies silently, swiftly, and with a grace which demands awe and respect.  From its high vantage point, the targeted prey below rarely stands a fair chance of avoidance.  Those eyes are focused, with a singular vision operating to corner, catch and consume.  Organisms under a microscope must feel a similar sense, if indeed they become aware of being studied and prodded.

People, too, who are being surveilled and inspected; there is often a sixth sense of being constantly and vigilantly watched.  Federal and Postal Workers who are under the onerous burden of a Performance Improvement Plan (the acronym of a “PIP”) have that same sense.  It is not a positive or productive feeling; it is, instead, a dread of knowing that the “watching” part is merely a prelude for further actions forthcoming, like the noiseless glide of the hawk above.

Being under the constant gaze of a predator often requires preventative action on the part of the prey; for Federal and Postal Workers who come to recognize that his or her job performance is deteriorating because of a medical condition, such that the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management may be the best option and course of action to take.  Because it is taking such a long time to get an approval these days, preparatory steps should be taken early.  Waiting for a separation from service, while still allowing for time thereafter to file, is normally not the wisest course.

As it is always better to be the “watcher” than the “watched”, so the Federal and Postal employee who needs to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits should take the affirmative steps to prepare for an eventuality — that time when, like the hawk who has made a decision to target its prey, the Federal or Postal Worker has a place of refuge to enter.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Early Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: The “Almost” Medical Inability to Perform Termination

Often, Agencies will proceed to propose a removal of a Federal or Postal employee based upon reasons which clearly “imply” one’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential functions of one’s job, but explicitly, based upon other stated reasons — e.g., “Failure to Maintain a regular work schedule” or “Being Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL)“.

Then, the frustrating scenario is when the Agency — in the body of the proposed removal letter — refers to and acknowledges the existence of multiple medical conditions which form the foundation, reason and justification for being unable to maintain a regular work schedule or being absent from the job (whether with or without official sanction or approval).

The key in such circumstances, of course, is to try and attempt to make the “implicit” (references to one’s medical conditions and their impact upon one’s inability to perform one’s job) “explicit” (having the Agency change or amend the reasons to instead state:  “Removal based upon the employee’s Medical Inability to Perform his or her job”).

Such a change, of course, would be helpful in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, precisely because it would invoke the Bruner Presumption, which would then make it that much more difficult for the Office of Personnel Management to deny a Federal Disability Retirement application.  For, that is the ultimate goal:  to obtain an approval of the Federal Disability Retirement application; and any such advantage gained brings the Federal or Postal employee one step closer to that ultimate goal.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for US Government Employees: Agency Adverse Actions

Agency actions of an adverse nature seem to go hand-in-hand with filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.  If one pauses for a moment, one can easily understand the underlying reasons:  Medical conditions often result in attendance problems or impact the ability of a Federal or Postal employee to perform all of the essential elements of the position.  Disability Retirement eligibility is precisely that which attempts to prove the latter point — of the impact upon one’s ability to perform all of the essential elements of the positional requirements.  

Thus, when attendance, performance or conduct concerning the positional requirements become an issue, the Agency will often begin initiating adverse actions — ranging from instituting a “Performance Improvement Plan” (PIP), memorandums of warnings, suspensions, and removals.  While adverse actions reflect negatively by their definition, the positive aspect of such adverse actions, in combination with Federal Disability Retirement, is that the adverse action, having the underlying basis of resulting because of one’s medical condition and because of one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, can actually be used to argue for a FERS or CSRS Disability Retirement approval.  As with most of that which is “true” in life, the irony of this cannot be overlooked.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Filing

If you believe that preparing, filing, and winning a Federal Disability Retirement case under FERS or CSRS is merely a matter of filling out forms, then don’t hire an attorney. Do it yourself.

On the other hand, if you believe that preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application involves:  gathering, reviewing, and compiling the proper and compelling medical evidence; of drafting and clearlly delineating & describing one’s medical conditions and their impact upon one’s job; of citing the proper legal authorities to provide the legal backing and forceful persuasion necessary; of being counseled in negotiating removal actions; of rebutting spurious arguments made by the Office of Personnel Management; of preparing the groundwork for subsequent appeals; of ultimately winning a case, as opposed to trying to squeak by with a hope and a prayer, then you might consider hiring an attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Accommodation Under FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement

The issue of Accommodations is always an important one in FERS & CSRS disability retirement cases. Agencies on the one hand will often attempt to “put together” a set of duties for the employee to perform, and try and keep a productive employee with the Agency.

There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it may even be commendable for the Agency to try and “accommodate” a good employee in such manner. However, such an ad hoc set of duties is not legally an acceptable “accommodation”, and when it comes to filing for disability retirement, it does not preclude a person from being able to file for, and be eligible for, disability retirement. Court cases have upheld this view.

Thus, in Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2001), the Federal Circuit Court delineated and outlined the applicable provisions governing disability retirement, stating that “the pertinent OPM regulation elaborates on the statutory definition by providing that an employee is eligible for disability retirement only if (1) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year; (2) the condition results in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the employee’s position; and (3) the agency is unable to accommodate the disabling condition in the employee’s position or in an existing vacant position.”

Note this last provision, because that is the “all-important language” with respect to the issue of accommodations. What the Court in Bracey stated, is that the term “accommodation” is a legal, precise term, and it means that in order to be a true accommodation, the Agency must do one of two things: Either, provide for working conditions such that an employee can continue to perform all of the essential elements of the position that the employee is occupying, or place that employee into an existing vacant position — at the same pay or grade. This latter point is also important: in Bracey, the Court clearly stated that an employee must be reassigned to a “vacant” position, and not one which was merely “made up”, and the reasoning of the court is clear: the Court Stated:

“We Agree with Mr. Bracey that OPM’s argument fails, because the term “vacant position” in section 8337 refers to an officially established position that is graded and classified, not to an informal assignment of work that an agency gives to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position. A ‘position’ in the federal employment system is required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it.” Id. at p. 1359

Further, the Court went on to state that the term “vacant position” means “something that is definite and already in existence rather than an unclassified set of duties devised to meet the needs of a particular employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id. at 1360.

Remember: if you have a medical condition such that you can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of your job, your Agency can certainly give you a set of duties to keep you in that position, and if you can do those duties, and like the type of work provided, that is great. However, if and when a new supervisor comes he, that supervisor can negate such an ad hoc set of duties, and declare that all employees must henceforth be able to do all of the duties of the official position description. That is why an ad hoc set of duties does not constitute an “accommodation” under the law — because what is assigned “ad hoc” can also be taken away “ad hoc”.

Unless a Federal Employee is legally accommodated, he or she has the option of filing for disability retirement. Don’t be fooled by an Agency who says, “Don’t worry; we’ll reduce your workload and let you work a light-duty position.” That “light-duty” position will not necessarily be permanent, especially when the next Supervisor comes along.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney