OPM Disability Retirement: The Flexibility of Language

Language is inherently a flexible tool; it is meant to communicate, and while precision in communication is the defining purpose in the use of the tool, often the essence of language must nevertheless be flexible enough to embrace other, correlative concepts. To limit the tool of language often will lead to undermining the very purpose of the use of such language.  

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the use of language in preparing, formulating and describing the interaction between the medical conditions and how it impacts one’s job duties, must allow for some level of flexibility.  For example, if certain chronic symptomatologies result in a mis-diagnosis of a medical condition, should a later (revised) diagnosis be allowed to be argued to the Office of Personnel Management after it has been filed?  

The answer to the question is contained in how the Applicant’s Statement of Disability on Standard Form 3112A is formulated.  If one merely lists the diagnosed medical conditions without describing the symptoms, then the language used has restricted the flexibility of post-filing inclusion.  On the other hand, if one combines the various medical diagnoses, but also includes a descriptive discussion of the symptoms, then the answer is likely, “yes”.  The use of language should be one of precision; how one utilizes the tools of language, however, should remain flexible.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Merry (Snowed in) Christmas

For those who read my blogs on a regular basis, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  I am snowed in over the weekend, and the accumulation of snow is expected to be over 10 inches.  Now, in many parts north and in the mid-west, I am told that such minimal amount of snow fails to constitute a “snow storm”, and many laugh at how we react here in the D.C.-Maryland Metropolitan area.  Everything is relative, and in my area, anything over an inch is responded to with panic and a rush to the grocery stores to stockpile our kitchen and cupboards. 

Such relative comparisons remind me of how pain and medical disabilities are often misunderstood by one another; that while “pain” is a subjective phenomenon, no matter how hard we try, we are often unable to convey the sensation that we experience.  The difference, of course, is that while there is an objective basis in determining the extent of snowfall, there is no such measure for pain. But how we react to pain is often an individual experience, one which we should not be quick to judge.  Unfortunately, agencies are often quick to judge, and therein lies the problem.  Hopefully, the snow here will let up soon, and I will be back in my office on Monday.

Merry Christmas

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: OPM’s Detailed Denial

Neither length nor detail constitutes legitimacy.  The spectrum of the types and styles of denial letters issued by the Office of Personnel Management in Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS & CSRS range from a short paragraph under the “Discussion Section”, to 3 – 4 pages of apparent references to doctor’s notes, reports, etc. — with a lengthy lecture about the need for “objective” medical evidence, and about how a particular medical condition “may be” treated by X, Y or Z treatment modalities. 

Don’t be fooled.  One may think that, because OPM provides a seemingly “detailed” explanation of why a particular disability retirement application was denied, that such lengthy detail means that it is somehow “substantive”.  In fact, I often find the opposite to be true:  the shorter the denial, the greater the substance.  The lengthy denial letters contain “substance”, all right — but substance of the wrong kind.  They contain:  Mis-statements of the law; mis-statements of the criteria to be applied; inappropriate assertions of medical opinions (contrary to what one might think, the OPM representative does not normally have a medical degree, let alone a law degree), and a host of other “mis-statements”.  Sometimes, the weightier the denial, the more confusing as far as how to respond.  And, perhaps, that is one methodology as to how OPM wants to approach the case:  If it seems long and complicated, maybe the applicant will sigh, give up, and go away.  Don’t.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Waiting too long

My approach to Federal Disability Retirement law is that there are very few, if any, mistakes made by the applicant which cannot be corrected, amended, or explained, especially where the essential ingredients of a “good” case are in existence: a supportive doctor; a position/duties which are incompatible with the type of medical conditions one suffers from, etc.

However, I receive telephone calls periodically where the individual simply has waited “too long”. Thus, to clarify: If you’ve been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, and you have a Hearing before an Administrative Judge 3 days from today, then you have probably “waited too long” (although, if you can get a postponement, or suspension of the case, there may still be time). If you’ve been denied by OPM and the Merit Systems Protection Board has already denied your case, then you have probably “waited too long”. Or, if you have been denied by OPM and by the MSPB and by the Full Board, then you have probably “waited too long”. I hope that I am getting the point across by overstating the case — while each individual must decided when it is the “right time” to get a lawyer to help in filing for disability retirement cases, and yes, while I take on cases at all stages of the process, the point is quite simple: It is better to have the expertise of an experienced attorney earlier, than later. In most case, that means at the very beginning of the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Client

Waiting for the approval/disapproval, the determination, the decision,etc., when the Federal Disability Retirement packet is sitting on OPM’s desk, is a passive modality of existence.  Up to that point, however, it is often a good idea to be actively involved in the process.

Whether having an Federal Disability Attorney or not, it is good to “flag” interim dates, to keep on top of how long it has been since the initial letters have been sent out to the doctors, to call the doctors and (diplomatically) ask for a reasonable time-frame within which to have the medical narrative reports written; to ask whether or not a fee is required to prepare the narrative report, and if so, how much, and if prepayment will expedite the report.

Then, once it arrives at the Agency H.R. people (or, in the case of the Postal Worker, the H.R. Shared Services Center in Greensboro, North Carolina), it is a good idea to periodically call (about every two weeks) to see what stage in the process your application is at.  Thereafter, once it is forwarded to the finance office, then on to Boyers, PA, it is a matter of waiting for the CSA number to be assigned, and then the long, arduous wait.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire
Federal Disability Lawyer