OPM Disability Retirement: The World in Which We Live

Various social commentators have observed the contradiction that, while we live in an increasingly global economy, individuals feel a greater sense of isolation; thus, the conundrum that the world is no longer an expansive, unreachable universe, but in private lives, the uniqueness of the individual is lost and forgotten.

Whether because of the stresses of isolation, or because of the fast-paced, technologically-driven world in which we live, or some organic-based reasons, one may never know; nevertheless, the exponential explosion of psychiatric illnesses erupting in our society cannot be denied.

There was a time, perhaps a decade or so ago, when a stigma was attached to medical conditions and disabilities which were deemed “stress-related“, and which encompassed depression, anxiety, uncontrollable panic attacks, agoraphobia, etc.  One cannot mark a clear demarcation of when the approach and societal attitude, let alone the medical community’s acceptance, of the wide array of psychiatric conditions, changed.

For Federal Disability Retirement purposes, however, the level of approvals versus denials between cases involving psychiatric conditions, as opposed to purely physical medical conditions, has become indistinguishable.  The U.S. Office of Personnel Management does not review or analyze cases based upon psychiatric conditions — so long as one can tell, purely from an “outsider’s” perspective — any differently from “physical” medical conditions.

This is obviously a “good” thing, because psychiatric medical conditions are just as valid, serious, “real”, and devastating, as the most serious of “physical” medical conditions.  The world in which we live has certainly changed; OPM has evolved with the new world, and we are all the better off for it.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Concept of Psychiatric Medical Conditions

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, and in representing Federal and Postal employees these many years to obtain the benefit of Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, the encounter with psychiatric medical conditions is often an involvement of greater complexity for multiple reasons:  Unlike physical conditions, the insidious nature of having an appearance of normalcy often undermines the Agency’s ability to effectively deal with the medical condition.  

While “the law” has certainly adapted itself to accept the concept of psychiatric medical conditions, such that Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, panic attacks, Agoraphobia, paranoia, psychotic episodes, etc. (as well as multiple other psychiatric medical conditions not listed herein, as this is not intended to be an exhaustive list) have become “legitimate”, it is the encounter with “real” people that continues to present the problems inherent in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application.  

For, as a “paper presentation” to the Office of Personnel Management, the conceptualized presentation of a medical condition — whether physical or psychiatric — can be effectively made by the efficacy of words and concepts.  However, the reaction and treatment of “real people” in the “real world” (i.e., the Agency, coworkers, Supervisors, etc.), who deal with appearances and productivity, the problematic lack of compassionate or empathetic encounter with psychiatric medical conditions continues to abound.  

It is easy to have compassion for that which we can observe; it is far more difficult to grasp and understand the world of one’s psyche.  This is why other such medical conditions similar in their conceptual framework — Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, etc., present difficulties for the employment community, whether in the Federal sector or the private arena.  Unless, of course, there is a “blood test” or some other diagnostic tool which one can point to, where one is able to say, “Ah, yes, so that is the problem…”  

We live in a world where we have the arrogance of believing that everything can be conceptualized and understood, and that every effect must have an understandable cause.  We are all logicians at heart; but sometimes the music of the world around us makes us pause, and astounds us to remind one that our speck of life in a vast universe should bring about a sense of humility.  

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (often referred to by its acronym, PTSD), is often associated with war-time experiences and specific traumatic incidents.  Often accompanied by other psychiatric conditions (e.g., Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks), it can be characterized by symptoms of nonrestorative sleep resulting from intrusive thoughts, nightmares, inability to focus and be attentive because of hypervigilance, and multiple other similar correlative symptoms.  

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the Office of Personnel Management will often make the spurious and irrelevant argument that the applicant failed to pinpoint a “specific incident” which “triggered” the PTSD.  However, most psychiatric medical reports and narratives which I have reviewed do not necessarily require such a triggering incident.  Indeed, it can often be as a result of a series of stressful events which came to a “boiling point” where the Federal or Postal worker could no longer tolerate the stresses of daily life beyond a certain flash point — and for each individual, that point of “no tolerance” is different and distinct, precisely because each individual is a unique being.  

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD as is commonly known, is a viable basis for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS — but as with all medical conditions, must be conveyed in a narrative which is understandable and linked to one’s inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s Federal or Postal job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities — Origin versus Situational

While the issue concerning “situational disability” has been previously discussed and written about in my various blogs and articles, it is helpful to keep in mind certain conceptual distinctions when preparing to file for Federal or Postal Disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

The concept normally applies to psychiatric disabilities, and specifically to two major areas:  Major Depression and Anxiety.  The paradigm of such a case often involves a Federal or Postal worker who has had some difficulties, conflict with, harassment by, etc., a supervisor or coworker within the agency. The Federal or Postal worker begins to manifest symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc.  An EEO Complaint is filed; a grievance is filed; perhaps, several such alternative venues of legal processes are utilized.  Despite fighting back, the hostile work situation fails to resolve itself.  More importantly, the psychiatric medical condition continues to worsen.  

Does this simple hypothetical constitute a basis for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, or is it precluded by the legal preclusion of “situational disability”?  As with all generic paradigms, the answer is:  It all depends.  

One must look at the chronicity of the psychiatric medical condition; whether the symptoms pervade all aspects of the life of the Federal or Postal Worker; to what extent the psychiatric medical conditions impact his or her ability to perform the essential elements of the job; and to what extent the Federal or Postal worker can perform such a job in a different environment.  It is in the details of the conceptual distinctions made, which determine the course of viability in filing for Federal or Postal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Issues

For Federal and Postal workers who are filing, or contemplating filing, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the distinction between “physical” medical conditions and “psychiatric” medical conditions are not always so clear and distinct.  While cases can be bifurcated for many clients (where the medical basis upon which a Federal Disability Retirement is based is wholly physical, or entirely psychiatric), often, cases have a “mixed” character to them, where depression, anxiety, panic attacks, etc., arise or become “secondary” to a chronic medical condition.  

The complex interaction between physical pain, chronic medical conditions which impact one’s job, physical abilities, etc., can at their inception be “secondary” in the sense that they have arisen and manifested the symptomatologies “after” or “second to” the original medical conditions.  However, after some time (and this is being stated from a legal perspective reviewing many such instances in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS), such secondary Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and even other psychiatric medical conditions, can become the central or prominent medical condition which forms the basis of a OPM Disability Retirement application.  Thus, that which was once “secondary” does not always remain so; it can become the primary basis.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

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