Federal Disability Retirement Lawyer blog: Meeting the Legal Criteria

Lawyers often speak about “the law” as if it has the character of a science — of established principles which are objective, without the arbitrary influences of subjective interpretive devices or nuances. But even science itself fails any pure test of universal unalterability; one need only read Kuhn’s description of shifting paradigms in the history of science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) to understand that objectivity is merely another word for pragmatism. For, that which “works” or is “effective” in the eyes of the greatest number of people, is what matters to most people. That is why success is an irreplaceable harbinger of general opinion.

In the Federal government, one would like to expect application of rules, regulations, etc., somewhat in an algorithmic form, where favoritism is lacking, and where everyone has a “clean shot” at everything.

Especially when it comes to a benefit such as Federal Disability Retirement, which impacts those who are most unfortunate — one beset with a medical condition such that one can no longer perform all of the essential elements of one’s job — an expectation that an objective criteria which can be met by pure factual presentation, legal magnification of relevant statutes and laws, and perhaps some modicum of argumentation for persuasion, is what should occur in a perfect world. But as the proverbial perfect world fails to materialize, we must do with what we are given; subjective interpretation, and selective analysis are merely human frailties and imperfections.

That is why legal argumentation and countering of subjectivism must be employed.

Federal Disability Retirement, whether for FERS or CSRS employees of the Federal government, must be fought for, and “won”; there is no mathematical algorithm of objective application; there is no parallel universe of perfection; there is only the human condition, which requires interpretation, knowledge, analysis, and argumentation which persuades and cajoles.

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

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities

Perhaps there will always be a suspicion that a distinction is made by a governmental entity/bureaucracy, between physical medical conditions and those which are deemed “psychological“.  For Federal and Postal workers who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, there are ample legal tools to point out to the Office of Personnel Management that such a distinction is not only improper, but moreover, contrary to the “law of the land“.  

The Federal Circuit Court has pointed out clearly and unequivocally that the law does not allow for OPM to make a distinction between that which is “objective” medical evidence and that which is “subjective“.  Further, beyond the conceptual distinction applying to the medical evidence, this means that the categories encompassing the two should not be distinguishable when applying the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement.  Thus, rational conclusions based upon clinical examinations, a long history with the patient, consistent symptoms as related to by the patient to the doctor — all are valid, and “as valid”, as the “objective” medical evidence purportedly revealed by an MRI or other diagnostic tools.  

Thus, the credence and credibility of Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and a host of other psychiatric disabilities, hold an equal level of legal validity as the long list of physical disabilities.  Don’t ever let OPM go down an argumentation route where no law exists to support it; they may often try, but it is up to the Federal or Postal Worker who is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS to meet them at every juncture of such sophistry.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Law

I will be writing an article of greater length on this issue, but suffice it for now that when “the law” works, it works well. A major second case has been decided in favor of the Federal employee — first, it was Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007), and now, Sylvia M. Reilly v. OPM, decided July 15, 2009. Vanieken-Ryals toppled the irrational imposition of a baseless standard by OPM — that there is a distinction to be made between “objective” as opposed to “subjective” evidence concerning medical evidence (example of the absurdity: How do you prove the existence of pain? While an MRI may show a physical condition, you cannot prove that such a physical condition equates to debilitating pain, leaving aside any quantification of pain. Similarly, how do you prove the existence of Major Depression? Anxiety? Panic attacks?).

Now, Reilly v. OPM has toppled another idol of a false standard imposed by OPM: that medical documentation which post-dates separation from Federal Service is near-irrelevant. This has never made sense, for at least 2 reasons: first, since a person is allowed to file for Federal Disability Retirement within 1 year of being separated from service, why would medical documentation dated after the separation be considered irrelevant? Second, medical conditions rarely appear suddenly. Most conditions are progressive and degenerative in nature, and indeed, that is what the Court in Reilly argues. Grant another win for the Federal employee, the law, and the process of law. It makes being a lawyer worthwhile when “the law” works.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Case of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is one of those medical conditions that the Office of Personnel Management systematically “targets” as a condition which is prima facie “suspect”. This is despite the fact that there are cases which implicitly “admonish” OPM from engaging in the type of arbitrary reasoning of denying a disability retirement application because they “believe” that “no objective medical evidence” has been submitted, or that the “pain” experienced (diffuse as it might be) is merely “subjective”, or that the chronicity of the pain merely “waxes and wanes”, and a host of multiple other unfounded reasonings. Yet, cases have already placed a clear boundary around such arbitrary and capricious reasonings.

A case in point, of course, is Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit case, decided on November 26, 2007. In that case, it clearly circumscribes the fact that OPM can no longer make the argument that an Applicant’s disability retirement application contains “insufficient medical evidence” because of its lack of “objective medical evidence”. This is because there is no statute or regulation which “imposes such a requirement” that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability. As long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with ‘generally accepted professional standards'”, then the application is eligible for consideration. Further, the Court went on to state that it is “legal error for either agency (OPM or the MSPB) to reject submitted medical evidence as entitled to no probative weight at all solely because it lacks so-called ‘objective’ measures such as laboratory tests.” Statues are passed for a reason: to be followed by agencies. Judges render decisions for a reason: for agencies to follow. Often, however, agencies lag behind statutes and judicial decisions. It is up the an applicant — and his or her attorney — to make sure that OPM follows the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB. 

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, as long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with generally accepted professional standards,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.  As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Remember the Details

At each state of attempting to get a Federal disability retirement application approved, it is important to “remember the details”. For example, at the Merit Systems Protection Board level, in conducting a Hearing, remember that if the best medical evidence/testimony you are able to provide is through a health professional other than an “M.D.” (e.g., a therapist, a Nurse Practitioner, a Chiropractor, etc.), always point out the unique credentials of the provider, to include whether in the particular state in which he/she practices, if greater latitude and responsibilities are given to the practitioner.

Thus, it may be that in one state a Nurse Practitioner can exam, diagnose, and prescribe a medication regimen without the direct oversight of a medical doctor, whereas in other states such latitude may not be allowed. This should be pointed out to the Judge, to emphasize greater credibility of the testimony of the practitioner. Further, remember that in Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, November, 2007), the Court therein reiterated that the medical documentation/evidence required must come from a ‘licensed physician or other appropriate practitioner’, and so long as that medical practitioner utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and that which is “consistent with generally accepted professional standards”, the testimony cannot be undermined. Use the strengths of the case you have, and emphasize the little details that matter.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire