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

OPM Federal Disability Retirement: The Danger of Situational Disability

The danger of falling into the trap of situational disability, which is one of a number of reasons for denying a disability retirement application, can come about quite regularly. Especially because, in the face of contending with a medical disability that is serious enough to warrant changing one’s career, of filing for medical disability retirement — there is often the Agency’s contentious response, of needing to have the continuity of the work accomplished, of being insensitive and lacking compassion for the applicant; in such a context, the applicant views the Agency’s response as hostile.

The employee/applicant, then, in filing for disability retirement, will often make the mistake of focusing upon the hostile work environment, or the lack of compassion and empathy on the part of the Agency — and this will often warrant a denial of disability retirement based upon the medical condition of the applicant as being “situational disability” — meaning that the medical condition of the employee/applicant is limited to the work situation of that particular office or agency. This is a completely wrong-headed approach for the applicant.

That is why, when I represent my clients, I am singularly focused upon the 2 or 3 main issues that form the essence of a disability retirement case, and insist upon focusing my clients upon those very same issues, while setting aside those tangential issues which can ultimately defeat a disability retirement application. Understand that these peripheral, tangential issues may well be “important” to my client — but I would not be doing my job in representing my clients if I allowed the peripheral issues to become “front and center” — for that would be a disaster for my clients. I represent people to obtain disability retirement benefits. That is my job. That is my focus. If I allow my focus to waiver, then I am not representing my clients properly.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Merit Systems Protection Board: Hearings Are Not Inevitable

The third step in the process of filing and obtaining disability retirement from the Office of Personnel Management is to appeal the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is initiated after a disability retirement application has been denied twice: First, at the initial stage, then, upon a request for reconsideration and an opportunity to submit additional medical and other documentation, if the Office of Personnel Management denies the application a second time, then the Applicant has the right to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Such a case is then set to be heard by an Administrative Judge, and mandated to be completed within 120 days from the time it is appealed. Many applicants who go into this third stage have the unwarranted belief that a Hearing is an inevitability, and that there is no further opportunity to convince OPM to reverse themselves, or change their minds. That is simply not the case. Often, the OPM representative at the MSPB level is much more attuned to the evidentiary level required, and will entertain the receipt and review of an updated medical report, or additional diagnostic tests, or more detailed treatment notes, etc. The mere fact that OPM denied the application at the first two stages, and the fact that the jurisdictional landscape has now changed from OPM to the MSPB, does not mean that OPM’s mind cannot be changed. The key is to listen carefully at what OPM’s representative is saying at a Prehearing Conference, or even earlier if contact is made with him/her. By listening and complying with a reasonable request, it can save the applicant needless time and expenses (for the testimony of a doctor can, indeed, be expensive), and have the ultimate outcome that the applicant desires: approval of a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Back-Pay

Remember to not spite yourself, especially when it comes to financial considerations. If your medical disability is forcing you to take excessive LWOP, it might be better to go “cold turkey” and stay completely out on LWOP while you file for disability retirement benefits. This is because, once you get your disability retirement application approved, you will be paid “back pay” in a lump-sum form, back to the last day of your pay, at the 60% rate from your last day of pay forward for the first 12 months.

Thus, if you work only 2 days out of the week, and you take LWOP for the other 3 days, you are losing 20% of pay, because were you to go out on LWOP, instead of being paid 40% of your salary (2 out of the 5 days), you would be getting back-pay for essentially 3 out of the 5 days (60%). On the other hand, don’t go out on LWOP, then after 4 or 5 months, go back to work for a week — because in that instance, you will never recover the 4 or 5 months of LWOP, because the “last day of pay” will have been paid to you when you went back to work. While all of this may be a bit confusing, it is essential to your financial health and consideration when entering the complex process of Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Recurring Issues of Disability Accommodation, Light & Limited Duty, and the Form Filling of the OPM SF 3112D PDF File

The issue of Agency Accommodations — whether or not an agency can truly “accommodate” an individual; what constitutes a legal accommodation as opposed to temporary light-duty arrangements which do not constitute legally viable accommodations under the standards as expressed in Bracey v. OPM and other cases — keeps coming up in the form of questions and concerns.

Let me just state a few thoughts: First, obviously, the best scenario is if the Agency checks off block 4(a) of SF 3112D, acknowledging that the “medical evidence presented to the agency shows that accommodation is not possible due to the severity of the medical condition and the physical requirements of the position.” Second, however, even if the Agency does not check off 4(a), it is not necessarily a problem, or even a valid concern. Agency Human Resources personnel are notoriously ignorant of the current case-law, and often mistake ad-hoc temporary assignments as constituting an “accommodation”, when in fact they represent no such standard or level of acceptability in disability retirement law. Finally, it is always mindful to remember that disability retirement is a medical issue, not one which is determined by non-medical personnel, and that is why it is important to focus first and foremost upon obtaining a legally sufficient medical narrative report.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Additional Guidance on Disability Retirement Supervisor’s Statement

Some have asked me whether acceptance of a temporary light duty assignment is of concern in a disability retirement application. If you look at SF 3112B (Supervisor’s Statement), Section E(3), the question is whether the employee has “been reassigned to ‘light duty’ or a temporary position?

If the Supervisor answers “No”, then of course there is no issue which would arise which would impact a disability retirement application; if the Supervisor answers “yes”, then it can actually be used as an argument for a disability retirement application, because it can be argued that the fact that the Agency has reassigned the applicant to a temporary “light duty” position is additional evidence of the acknowledgment by the Agency that the applicant could not perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, and therefore in such recognition, the Agency provided for a temporary light duty assignment. Acceptance of such an assignment is not a bar to disability retirement, precisely because it is not a “reassignment” to a “vacant” position, as required in the case of Bracey v. OPM.

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

Federal Disability Retirement and the Agency Cover of “Accommodation”

I am receiving too many phone calls from people who have been fooled by his/her Agency that they have been “accommodated”, and therefore they cannot file for disability retirement. From Federal Workers at all levels who are told that they can take LWOP when they are unable to work, to Postal Workers who are given “Limited-Duty Assignments” — all need to be clear that your are NOT BEING ACCOMMODATED, AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO FILE FOR DISABILITY RETIREMENT. Let me clarify this issue by first discussing the important case-law of Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Bracey was, and still is, a landmark decision — one of those cases that pushed back the attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to create a broad definition of what “accommodation” means, and thereby try and undermine a Federal and/or Postal Employees’ right to disability retirement. 5 U.S.C. 8337(a) states that a disabled employee is eligible for disability retirement unless the employee is able to render “useful and efficient service in the employee’s position”, or is qualified for reassignment to an existing vacant position in the agency at the same grade or level. What this basically means is that, if you have a medical condition and you cannot do one or more of the essential elements of your job, you are entitled to disability retirement unless your Agency can (a) do something so that you can continue to work in your job, or (b) reassign you to an existing vacant position at the same pay or grade (all of those words are key to understanding the Bracey decision). As to the first issue, if your medical condition, either physical or psychiatric, is impacting your ability to perform the key functions of your job (in other words, “useful and efficient service” means that you must be able to perform the “critical or essential” elements of your position), then it means that you are eligible for disability retirement — unless the Agency can reassign you to an existing vacant position (the second issue). As to the second issue, what the Court in Bracey meant is that there has to be an actual position existing, which is vacant, to which a person can be reassigned and slotted into, at the same pay or grade.

In Bracey, the Office of Personnel Management was trying to have it both ways: they argued that (a) an individual is “accommodated” if he can do his “job”, and the “job” which the Agency was having Mr. Bracey do was a “light-duty” job that was made up by the Agency. As a result, the Office of Personnel Management had denied Mr. Bracey’s application for disability retirement, and the case reached the Merit Systems Protection Board, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on appeal. More recently, Agencies have been trying to convince Federal workers that they can take “Leave Without Pay” and work less hours; or revert to part-time status; or perform some other functions — and this constitutes an “accommodation”. Or, in the case of Postal Workers, especially those who have intersecting OWCP issues, one is often told that “Limited-Duty Assignments” constitute an “accommodation”. However, for the latter, it is important to review such assignments — does it include jobs from another craft? Are you offered a new “Limited Duty Assignment” each year, or every two years (which would imply that it is not a permanent assignment)? Can a new supervisor or Postmaster come in tomorrow and declare that there are no longer any “Limited Duty Assignments” available (which is often the case)?

Remember that 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. The ‘resulting position-classification’ system is ‘used in all phases of personnel administration’. 5 U.S.C. 5101(2)” (Bracey at page 1359). It cannot be a position “consisting of a set of ungraded, unclassified duties that have been assigned to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id.

Similarly, for Postal employees, you cannot be slotted in your craft position, but then be given duties crossing over from other crafts; and you cannot be told that you have been slotted into an already existing “vacant” position, but then be offered the same “Limited-Duty” position a year later. If it was truly a permanent “vacant” position, why would you be offered the same position a year later?

Remember that under 5 C.F.R. Section 831.502(b)(7), an offered position must be, among other things, of the same tenure as the position from which the employee seeks disability retirement. “Tenure” is defined at 5 C.F.R. Section 210.102(b)(17) as “the period of time an employee may reasonably expect to serve under his current appointment.”

If you are a Federal or Postal employee, and you find this discussion about the Bracey decision to be somewhat confusing, do not let the complexity of disability retirement laws keep you from inquiring about your eligibility. In its simplest form, disability retirement is about 2 issues: Are you able to perform the essential elements of your job? If not, Can your Agency slot you into an already-existing position at the same pay, grade and tenure, and not just in some “made up” position that hasn’t been graded and classified”? If your answer is “No” to both questions, then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits.

As true with all things in life, it is always better to affirmatively act with knowledge, especially knowledge of the law. Like the Tibetan proverb, to act without knowledge of the law is to act blindly. To fail to act, or to allow your circumstances to control your destiny, is to allow your Federal Agency or the U.S. Postal Service to dictate your future for you. If you are disabled, and unable to perform the critical elements of your job, then you should consider the option of disability retirement. Opting for disability retirement does not mean that you can no longer be productive in society in some other capacity; indeed, you are allowed to receive a disability annuity and go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays. Opting for disability retirement merely means that you have a medical condition which is no longer a good “fit” for the type of job you currently have.

My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire