FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Reasonableness of the Governing Law

Without getting into too many comparisons, the laws governing disability retirement benefits are, upon reflection, actually quite reasonable.  Think about it this way:  yes, it doesn’t pay a great amount, but at the same time, you are encouraged to go out and be productive in some other employment capacity, and are able to make up to 80% of what your former job pays currently.

Unlike the stringent and onerous OWCP/DOL laws, you are not subjected to arbitrary, so-called “independent” medical examinations by doctors who make a substantial portion of their livelihood on rendering such “independent” second, third, and fourth opinions; your application is based upon what your own treating doctor says — not by some doctor who is a specialist in “disability ratings” or “disability determinations”.

This latter criteria is actually for the benefit of the applicant, when you stop and think about it.  For, if the law allowed for disability retirement applications to be determined by doctor’s opinions who are “disability specialists”, and not by your own treating doctor, then what would happen is that the entire disability retirement process would become a war between doctors and so-called specialists, overshadowing the one who should count the most — the treating doctor.

Instead, as the reasonableness of the present law stands, the weight of the medical determination is based upon the applicant’s longstanding treating doctor — and that is the way it should be.  For it is only a doctor who has enjoyed many years of an intimate doctor-patient relationship who should be granted the special weight and status that is accorded in disability retirement laws:  the special status of one who can make a viable, respectable determination of one’s employment capabilities, based upon the medical conditions he or she suffers from.  All in all, the disability retirement laws are governed by a criteria of reasonableness.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Proper Paradigm

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all operate, in all segments of our lives, from a certain “paradigm” (reference Thomas Kuhn, Structures of Scientific Revolutions) or “world-view”. When it comes to Federal Disability Retirements, the majority of Federal and Postal workers who comes to me have a pre-formed, generally negative attitude about the chances of getting it. This is because they have heard too many horror stories; or they have had horrendous experiences with OWCP filings, or EEOC complaints, or other experiences which they then relate to how the disability retirement process must be.

Yet, all Federal and Postal employees must understand that the process of Federal Disability Retirement has many, many inherent advantages which make it different from other processes. For instance, the Merit System Protection Board has often observed, with respect to disability retirement, that it is distinguishable from other processes, because it is not — strictly speaking — an adversarial process between an agency and an employee; rather, the MSPB sees it simply as a single issue — that of an employee’s entitlement to disability retirement.

Further, the role of the Office of Personnel Management, while seemingly one of making things overly difficult for the individual, in reality has a very difficult time in ultimately justifying a denial. Why? Because they do not have a right to have a doctor of their own to examine the applicant/patient (note the difference with OWCP, where you can be sent to second, third, and sometimes fourth medical opinions by doctors chosen by DOL and paid by DOL). Thus, it is almost as if OPM must disprove a case filed by an applicant. Finally, it is difficult to attack a treating doctor of an applicant, unless there is something seriously wrong with the credentials or competence of the treating doctor. All in all, disability retirement for Federal and Postal Workers is a fair process — one which is a valuable benefit for the Federal and Postal Employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal OPM Disability Retirement: Preexisting Conditions

There is still some confusion with respect to the relevance of preexisting medical conditions, or medical conditions which were incurred while working, or outside of the workplace, and the impact of such medical disabilities upon one’s right to file for disability retirement under FERS or CSRS. This confusion is evident from some of the questions I have been recently asked.

Remember that preexisting medical conditions are irrelevant to filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, in most cases; the fact that an individual has been able to perform the essential elements of one’s job for many years, but comes to a point in his or her career where the medical condition has been exacerbated, or deteriorated, to the point where it begins to prevent one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, is all that is needed to be shown.

It matters not that the medical condition “preexisted” one’s Federal service; and, indeed, many of my client’s began working with a VA disability rating, but worked successfully for a number of years, until the medical condition(s) underlying the VA disability rating worsened, or came to a point where it began to impact his or her ability to perform the job functions. Similarly, whether or not the injury or medical disability was incurred while working or while on a skiing trip, is irrelevant. The primary point and focus in FERS & CSRS disability retirements cases, is that a person has the minimum years of Federal Service (5 years for CSRS; 18 months for FERS), and during the person’s Federal Service, he or she incurred a medical condition such that it prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal OPM Disability Retirement: Notifying the Agency

Fervent loyalty by the Federal and Postal Employee to want to work for as long as possible, and to do the best job possible, is often taken for granted; what is not as common, however, is a “bilateral loyalty” — meaning, loyalty shown by the Agency back to the Federal or Postal employee, especially when such loyalty is needed, during the long process of filing for, and obtaining, disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management.

In representing a client, I am often asked whether or not the Agency should be notified of our intentions immediately, and my response always is: It depends. If there is a strong and positive relationship between the employee and supervisor, where there are strong indicators that the Agency will be supportive during the lengthy process, then I will often advise informing them fairly quickly. More often, however, the Agency has had a long history of acting in a “less than sympathetic” manner — and that is in most cases. In such cases, I normally advise to wait until the disability retirement packet has been prepared and finalized, and it is ready to be submitted to the Personnel or District H.R. Office. Each case must be looked at independently, and there are never any easy answers. Agencies are comprised of individuals; individuals are complex beings, with the potential for compassion and empathy, but just as well with a potential for cold disregard for the plight of an individual. So long as Agencies are comprised of individuals, Agencies themselves act as individuals, and each case must be viewed in that light.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Very First Step

Federal and Postal employees often get a bad rap; yet, what I find in all cases, without exception, is that Federal and Postal employees take great pride in their work. Moreover, they do not want to file for disability retirement — there is a “mental wall” — a desire at all costs not to file for disability retirement, until the physical pain gets too much, or the psychiatric symptoms become too overwhelming.

It is at that critical point — the recognition that he or she is no longer able to continue to work at a particular job; this is the difficult point of self-awareness that must be faced. This is the very first step which must be taken, before one is able to file for disability retirement. And, indeed, I find that Federal and Postal employees are loyal, hard-working, and motivated to work, and to work hard. But there is a point at which one must come to grips with the fact that a particular job A is no longer a good fit for Federal Worker B, with medical conditions C. When these three elements coalesce, it is time for the individual to seriously contemplate filing for disability retirement. Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit which all Federal and Postal employees are entitled to, if he or she qualifies. When the first step needs to be taken, there is never any shame in that — because you have shown your loyalty, your dedication, and your endurance through your medical conditions; there is a point where you must begin to listen to your doctors.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Methodology II

When the Office of Personnel Management approves an OPM disability retirement application, as I stated in the previous article (OPM’s Methodology), they will normally choose to approve it based upon only one of the listed disabilities. This is because, from OPM’s viewpoint, if the applicant lists multiple medical disabilities, once OPM reaches any one of the listed disabilities and finds that one of them is a basis for an approval, there is no further need for OPM to review the remaining medical conditions.

This methodology requires that future applicants consider the consequences of such a method: it is essential that the applicant base a disability retirement application upon only essential, significant medical conditions, normally best to list them in the order of significance, and further, to document a case in the order of severity.

While I have not heard of a disability retirement application being approved based upon a non-essential, minor medical condition, it is wise not to rely upon the off-chance that OPM might base an approval upon a medical condition that is somewhat “thrown in” as an afterthought, into the applicant’s statement of disability. In other words, it is not a good idea to “throw in the kitchen sink” at the last moment, thinking that by multiplying the quantity of medical conditions listed, that OPM will see how “serious” one’s medical condition is. Remember, it is not the totality of many medical conditions that is important; rather, it is the list, however small, of those medical conditions that prevent one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: OPM's Methodology

When the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) approves a federal disability retirement application, a separate page from the approval letter will often be attached, which states the medical basis upon which the disability retirement application was approved. The separate page will often state something to the effect of: “You submitted an application for disability retirement based upon medical conditions, A, B, C & D; however, your application was approved for medical condition B only.”

The concern here, of course, is that if you are later selected to answer an OPM Medical Questionnaire asking you to re-establish your medical disability for continuation of your disability annuity some years later, that you make certain that you answer such a Medical Questionnaire based upon that very medical condition upon which you were approved. This is obviously important. Some have questioned whether or not you can appeal the approval letter based upon the fact that you believe OPM should have approved you based upon a different medical condition. In my view, this is not an appealable issue, and if you question OPM as to whether they should have considered you disabled based upon another medical condition, you may be in greater danger by OPM reversing themselves based upon a re-review of your case. It is best to leave “well enough alone”. Accept the approval letter based upon the identified medical condition, and inform your treating doctor that you may need his input in the future — to address that very medical condition for which you were approved.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire