FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Little Engine that Couldn’t

It is an educational tool utilized to impart upon children the value of hard work and unfettered optimism, but one wonders, At what point should the harsh realities of the world be included?  How, sometimes there are situations where the obstacles are so great and the conspiratorial caverns so deep that the graph of upward mobility is but a mere mirage in life’s cycle of certitude. The balance between the benefit of maintaining optimism in the face of adversity, and tempering unrealistic expectations, is a scale of justice which is delicately configured throughout life.

While the tale of the Little Engine that Could represents the cultural and societal impetus for encouraging work, fair play, persistence and a positive attitude, some of life’s obstacles serve to cut short the capacity and ability to achieve stated first goals.  Medical conditions tend to do that.  Whether primarily physical or secondarily psychiatric, or inversely impacted, a progressively debilitating medical condition saps the self-confidence of the individual, and eats away at the abilities of the patient.

For Federal employees and U.S. Postal Service workers, when a medical condition begins to prevent the Federal or Postal worker from performing all of the essential elements of the positional duties of the Federal or Postal employee, consideration must be given to one’s future, and that future planning should include filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Eligibility for OPM Disability Retirement benefits encompasses all Federal and Postal employees, whether one is under FERS or CSRS, so long as the Federal or Postal employee has met the minimum eligibility requirements: 18 months of Federal Service for those under FERS, and 5 years for those under CSRS (which is essentially assumed that anyone under CSRS already has at least 5 years of Federal Service).

Further, if the Federal or Postal employee is still on the rolls of the agency or the U.S. Postal Service, or has not been separated for more than 31 days, then the Federal Disability Retirement application must be routed first through one’s Human Resource Office of one’s Federal agency or the U.S. Postal Service (for the latter, the central processing point for all Federal Disability Retirement applications for Postal Workers is located in Greensboro, N.C.), then to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Boyers, PA.

Implicit in this requirement, of course, is that there is a “Statute of Limitations” as to filing a Federal Disability Retirement application.  All Federal Disability Retirement applications must be filed within 1 year from the date of separation from Federal Service.  Thus, if a Federal or Postal employee is terminated, or has resigned, and a Federal Disability Retirement application is filed, the (now former) Federal or Postal employee must file within 1 year of the date of separation — but if separated for less than 31 days, then through one’s former agency or U.S. Postal Service, and if over 31 days, then directly to Boyers, PA, which is the “intake” processing office for OPM for all Federal Disability Retirement applications.

Whether the Federal or Postal employee ever read or heard tell of the tale of the Little Engine that Could, the time for filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits is when that proverbial engine gives out, and when life’s harsh realities turns the story of optimism and hope into a pragmatic approach in order to secure one’s future; for, sometimes, life accords engines which need fine-tuning, and medical conditions represent just that sort of mechanical need, for the Little Engine that once Could which turned into the Little Engine that Couldn’t.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Agency Actions & OPM

The argument in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS goes as follows:  An Agency has determined that a Federal or Postal employee is medically unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; that Federal or Postal employee cannot be accommodated; the case-law states that, at a minimum, the agency conclusions have a persuasive effect upon a Federal Disability Retirement application; ergo, the Office of Personnel Management should approve the Federal or Postal employee’s Federal Disability Retirement application under either FERS or CSRS.

The problem with such an argument, if relied upon exclusively, is threefold:  (1)  The statutory mandate as to which agency makes a determination upon a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS is misplaced, (2) The Agency, whether the Flight Surgeon at the FAA who determines that an Air Traffic Controller is medically unqualified to continue in his or her job, or the Postal Service who determines pursuant to the National Reassessment Process (NRP) that there is no longer a job available at the Postal Service, or any other agency which determines that no accommodations can be provided — has not applied all of the legal criteria under the laws and statutes governing Federal Disability Retirement applications, and (3) the focus from the perspective of the agency is a “second-tier” focus — of whether an accommodation can be provided to the Federal or Postal employee to see if the efficiency of the Agency can continue, as opposed to the “first-tier” issue of whether the Federal or Postal employee has a medical condition such that it satisfies all of the criteria for a Federal Disability Retirement application.  

As such, it is the focus of the respective agencies which differentiate the possibility of an agency action being merely persuasive, as opposed to determinative, in a Federal Disability Retirement applicationunder either FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: You Still Have to Prove your Case

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, many Federal and Postal employees operate under the misguided presumption that, if the Agency has acknowledged one’s medical conditions, cannot accommodate the Federal or Postal employee, and explicitly concedes that the disabled Federal or Postal employee cannot perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, that an approval of the Federal Disability Retirement application is nothing more than a mere formality beyond its submission.  

Thus, for example, the scenario as painted herein might include the Flight Surgeon’s determination for the Air Traffic Control Specialist who works for the FAA, who disqualifies the ATS for either his/her medical condition, or the medication regimen that he/she is taking; or it may involved the Postal Worker who is sent home pursuant to the National Reassessment Process; or it may be a Federal or Postal worker who has been administratively separated from Federal Service based upon his or her medical inability to perform the essential functions of one’s job, and thereby is entitled to the Bruner Presumption.  

All of these case-studies are “nice”; they are promising, and there is obviously substantive and useful evidence that the Federal or Postal employee is probably eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits — but what the Agency does or says is not enough.  The Federal or Postal employee must still meet the burden of proof and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

The Office of Personnel Management is an independent agency, separate and apart from the other Federal Agencies or the Postal Service.  What determinations are made by the other agencies will not persuade OPM of anything; in a Federal Disability Retirement case, you must prove your case of medical eligibility, above and beyond what the Agency says or does.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Snow (and More Snow)

By all accounts, the amount of snow which has hit the D.C. & surrounding metropolitan area constitutes a record amount. With 25 – 30 inches already on the ground and stretching the resources of state and local governments, there is another winter weather warning, of another 10-plus inches of snow. The Federal Government has shut down today (Monday); that means that the Office of Personnel Management, Disability Retirement Section, has been shut down. While the white blanket is certainty a picture of beauty to behold, those who have Federal Disability Retirement applications awaiting a decision, and those who will be shortly filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS will have further delays because of the shut-down of the Federal government.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Standard Forms Do Not Mean “Standard Responses”

The problem with “Standard Forms” is that they often appear to solicit “standard responses”, and in a Federal Disability Retirement case under the Federal Employees Retirement Systems (FERS) or the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, it is often because a Federal or Postal employee/applicant who confronts and begins to fill out SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability, the very “blocked” appearance of the form, and the constricting questions themselves, makes it appear as if a “standard response” is required.  Don’t be fooled.

By way of example, take a “special animal” — that of a Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller who must take a disqualifying medication, loses his or her medical certification from the Flight Surgeon, and thinks that filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is a “slam dunk”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Or, a Customs & Border Patrol Agent who goes out on stress leave, or suffers from chronic back pain.  Are there “standard responses” in filling out an Applicant’s Statement of Disability?  There are certain standard “elements” which should be considered in responding to the questions, but don’t be constricted by an appearance of “standard responses” to a “standard form”.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Denial at the First Stage

I would like to state that none of my cases have ever been denied at the Initial Stage of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; not only would such a statement be untrue; it would also be unbelievable.  And yes — even the cases that I file on behalf of my clients, get a similarly formatted denial:  a restatement of the criteria for eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS & CSRS; a discussion with an elaborate reference to doctor’s notes, dates of treatment, targeted extrapolations of statements by the doctors which are not only selectively chosen in a narrow manner to favor the decision of denial, but further, which are often taken out of context.  Some might wonder:  Doesn’t OPM have greater respect for Mr. McGill?  The answer is:  At the First Level, the representative from the Office of Personnel Management is merely making a decision on one of thousands of files, and a template is being used to process and get rid of cases.  However, one must always remember (as I try to remind everyone) that this is a “process”.  A denial at the First Stage of the process is merely part of the greater process.  It is not something to get annoyed at, or concerned about; it is a stage and a decision which must be dealt with, argued against, and rebutted in the proper, rational, legal manner. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Paradigms for the Future

In attempting to decide to file for Federal Disability Retirement Benefits, it is often the case that Social Security disability benefits must be considered (not just “considered”, obviously, for FERS employees, because it is a requirement to file for it), and how seriously and vigorously; and further, whether to pursue, or to continue on, OWCP temporary total disability benefits.  These are “paradigms” that must be considered for the future.  By “paradigm”, I mean that they represent “models” of how a person wants his or her future to be based upon. 

For instance, let’s take the paradigm of Social Security disability benefits.  Because FERS employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits must also file for Social Security disability benefits (to see if they qualify; and, if qualified, the offsetting features will apply), one must take into consideration whether or not a Federal or Postal employee will actually want Social Security disability benefits.  This question arises because Social Security has a “cap” in which a person who receives Social Security disability benefits can make ancillary earned income (roughly no more than $10,000 per year).  Because of this, one must think of the future paradigm of one’s life:  If a person on FERS disability retirement wants to go out and get a part-time job, or start on a path for another career, where he or she makes 15, 20, 25,000 per year or more (because remember, a person can make up to 80% of what a person’s former Federal or Postal job currently pays), then he or she may not want to get Social Security disability benefits.  Most people who are on Federal disability retirement are simply disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of the particular job; they are not “totally disabled”, and therefore are able to go out and start a second career.  This is the “paradigm” for the future which must be considered, and such a model for the future must be carefully thought through.  Next:  the OWCP paradigm.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire