Early Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: The “Almost” Medical Inability to Perform Termination

Often, Agencies will proceed to propose a removal of a Federal or Postal employee based upon reasons which clearly “imply” one’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential functions of one’s job, but explicitly, based upon other stated reasons — e.g., “Failure to Maintain a regular work schedule” or “Being Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL)“.

Then, the frustrating scenario is when the Agency — in the body of the proposed removal letter — refers to and acknowledges the existence of multiple medical conditions which form the foundation, reason and justification for being unable to maintain a regular work schedule or being absent from the job (whether with or without official sanction or approval).

The key in such circumstances, of course, is to try and attempt to make the “implicit” (references to one’s medical conditions and their impact upon one’s inability to perform one’s job) “explicit” (having the Agency change or amend the reasons to instead state:  “Removal based upon the employee’s Medical Inability to Perform his or her job”).

Such a change, of course, would be helpful in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, precisely because it would invoke the Bruner Presumption, which would then make it that much more difficult for the Office of Personnel Management to deny a Federal Disability Retirement application.  For, that is the ultimate goal:  to obtain an approval of the Federal Disability Retirement application; and any such advantage gained brings the Federal or Postal employee one step closer to that ultimate goal.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: The PIP

Let’s be very clear:  while the designation of a Performance Improvement Plan is often characterized or defined as an “opportunity” for both the Agency as well as the Federal employee to assess the performance of an individual, in order to show areas of needed improvement, to identify areas of needed accommodation, etc., the truth of the intended placement of a PIP is one clear roadmap:  To get rid of you.  It is a way for the Agency to have an “objective” basis in which to propose a termination of a Federal employee.  It is a way for the Agency to be able to say to the Judge, “Hey, we tried; we gave him/her the opportunity to improve…”

The consequences and linkage between a PIP and a Federal Disability Retirement application, however, is almost always there to take advantage of:  The Performance Improvement Plan (a corollary for the Postal employee is the “Investigative Interview”, or other similar nonsense) is proof-positive that one’s medical conditions directly prevent one from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.

The key is to try and document the linkage — between the initiation of a PIP and having the Agency acknowledge that there are underlying medical conditions which caused the necessity of a PIP initiation, as well as leading to the resulting failure within the PIP.  While it may be that the Federal employee wants to continue to work, and not file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the reality is that the initiation and institution of a PIP is a good indicator that filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is no longer a choice; it has become a necessity.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: After a Resignation

Anyone and everyone who has followed my blogs or my more lengthy articles knows that an individual has up to one (1) year to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, after being separated from Federal service.  The clock begins to run upon a resignation by a Federal employee.  The actual date of separation should be ascertained on the “Form 50” or “PS Form 50”, as a personnel action.  There are many reasons why an individual resigns.  Perhaps it is because of an impending adverse action; a threatened adverse action; a fear of a future adverse action; or because a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job. 

Whatever the reason, if an individual has a medical condition such that he or she could no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, prior to the date of the resignation, then there is a good chance that the (now former) Federal or Postal employee may be eligible for disability retirement benefits.  Indeed, my view as an attorney who exclusively represents Federal and Postal employees to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is that if you have invested a considerable number of years of your life in Federal Service, then you should seriously consider whether your medical condition was a primary, or even a contributing, factor in your resignation decision.  Don’t let the clock run for too long; it may pass quietly, to a time when it is too late.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Clarity over Question

While a compromise position on certain issues in Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS may be the best that one may hope for, obviously, clarity over question is the better course to have.  Thus, for instance, in a removal action, where a Federal or Postal employee is being removed for his or her “excessive absences,” it is best to have the proposed removal and the decision of removal to reference one or more medical conditions, or at least some acknowledgment by the Agency, that would explicate — implicitly or otherwise — that the underlying basis for the “excessive absences” were as a result of the medical condition.  There are cases which clearly state that where excessive absences are referenced by medical conditions, the Bruner Presumption would apply in a Federal Disability Retirement case. 

Now, in those cases where the removal action merely removes a Federal or Postal employee for “excessive absences”, there are other methods which may win over an Administrative Judge to apply the Bruner Presumption.  Such “other methods” may include emails or correspondence, at or near the time of the removal action, which appears to put the Agency on notice about specific medical conditions, including attachments of doctor’s reports, medical notations, etc.  Such concurrent documentation can convince an Administrative Judge that, indeed, the question as to whether the “excessive absences” were as a result of a medical condition, and whether the Agency was aware of such an underlying basis, is clarified by documents which provide a proper context within the reasonable time-frame of the issuance of the proposal to remove and the decision to remove.  It is always better, of course, to have clarity over a question, but sometimes the question can be clarified with additional and concurrent documentation.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Be Careful

As part of a Federal or Postal employee’s process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, one may have to negotiate, respond to, or fight against an unfair Agency’s attempt to remove the Federal or Postal employee — based upon factors other than what is truly the underlying basis — of his or her medical inability to perform the essential elements of the Federal job.  For whatever reason — of incompetence, of pure unkindness, of personal vendettas, etc. —  Agencies will often refuse to remove an individual for the administratively neutral reason (by “neutral”, to mean that it is not an “adverse” action) of “medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job”.  Instead, they will often revert to other reasons:  “excessive absences”, “AWOL”, “excessive LWOP”; “violation of a PIP”, and other such overtly misleading reasons.  When, the truth of the matter is/was, the Federal or Postal employee was sick, has a medical condition, and could not come to work because of medical reasons.  Be careful.  Fight the removal action.  Don’t accept the unfair basis.  File an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Remember, a removal for medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job can help you get an approval in a disability retirement application.  Better yet, hire an attorney who will fight for you.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Actions I

Can adverse agency actions to terminate a Federal employee impact a potential disability retirement application?  The short answer is “yes”, but the longer answer would have to consider multiple factors:  what is the underlying basis of the adverse action?  Does a person’s medical conditions (often psychiatric, cognitive dysfunctions impacting upon less than stellar performance ratings, or perhaps impacting upon the essential elements of one’s job in other ways) explain, in whole or in part, the “adverse” nature of the action?  Has there been a “paper trail” established with respect to informing the Agency of medical conditions, such that it can “explain” — again, in whole or in part — the apparent basis of the adverse action?  Is the Agency open to negotiating a material change in the proposed removal — i.e., from one which is adversarial (and therefore would be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board) to one based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (with a stipulation that no appeal will be filed, thereby saving the Agency’s time, resource, and personnel).  It is important to “get involved” in the process of any contemplated Agency action — early.  If the Agency puts an employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), it is time — in fact, overdue — to become active in the future plans for filing a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The Bruner Presumption

Just some comments about this important concept and one which all disability retirement applicants should be aware of. It is well-established law that an employee’s removal for his or her physical inability to perform the essential functions of his job or position, constitutes prima facie evidence that he is entitled to disability retirement as a matter of law, and that the burden of production then shifts to OPM to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the applicant is not entitled to disability retirement benefits. See Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993); and Marczewski v. Office of Personnel Management, 80 M.S.P.R. 343 (1998). What this means, essentially, is that if a Federal or Postal employee is removed for his or her medical inability to perform his/her job, the “burden of production” is placed onto OPM. It is as if OPM must “disprove” a disability retirement case, as opposed to an individual having to prove his/her right to disability retirement. It is a “prima facie” case, in that, by having your Agency remove you for your inability to perform your job, it is considered a valid case “on its face”. Further, in more recent cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board has held that the Bruner Presumption also applies where “removal for extended absences is equivalent to removal for physical inability to perform where it is accompanied by specifications indicating that the decision to remove was based on medical documentation suggesting that the appellant was disabled and unable to perform her duties.” McCurdy v. OPM, DA-844E-03-0088-I-1 (April 30, 2004), citing as authority Ayers-Kavtaradze v. Office of Personnel Management, 91 M.S.P.R. 397 (2002). This means that the removal itself need not specifically state that you are being removed for your medical inability to perform your job; it can remove you for other reasons stated, such as “extended absences”, as long as you can establish a paper-trail showing that those extended absences were based upon a medical reason.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

Federal and Postal Workers: Things You Shouldn’t Do When Filing For CSRS or FERS Disability Retirement

First, a quick clarification: I have had periodic calls concerning the time-frame in filing for disability retirement. The Statute of Limitations in filing for disability retirement is one year from the date you are separated from Federal Service — not from the date you were injured, or from the time you stopped working, etc. Next, many Federal and Postal Workers ask me to represent them in obtaining disability retirement at the Second Stage (OPM’s Reconsideration Stage), after having filed without representation. I have no problems with that — indeed, sometimes (though rarely), individuals have such a severe degree of medical disabilities that an attorney is not necessary. For the majority of Federal and Postal Workers, however, representation beginning at the initial stage of a disability retirement application is necessary. If, however, for financial or other reasons (including stubbornness), an individual insists upon filing for disability retirement without a qualified Attorney, the following are a few things which you should NOT do in preparing your application:

Do not become non-compliant in a treatment regimen, medication regimen, or any aspect of a reasonable medical regimen designed to treat the disease or injury. This is a sure way to have your disability retirement application denied. For, when an employee “is unable to render useful and efficient service because that employee fails or refuses to follow or accept normal treatment, it is wholly proper to say that the employee’s disability flows, not from the disease or injury itself (as the statute requires), but from the employee’s voluntary failure or refusal to take the available corrective or ameliorative action.” Baker v. Office of Personnel Management, 782 F.2d 993, 994 (Fed. Cir. 1986) (A word of caution: this does not mean that all surgeries must be consented to).

Do not ignore the basis of a Notice of Removal. I have previously discussed the importance of obtaining the Bruner Presumption, whenever possible, in a disability retirement case. Beyond getting the Bruner Presumption, however, is the fact that any implication of misconduct or willful failure on the part of the Federal or Postal Employee should always be appealed, if not to have it completely amended, then to at least have such a basis for removal expunged, and instead to allow for the employee to resign, thereby nullifying misconduct as a basis for separation. Never give the Office of Personnel Management an additional reason to deny your disability retirement application.

Do not have your treating doctors send in medical documentation directly to the Agency Personnel Office. Always take charge of your own disability retirement application. Have the doctors send the medical documentation to you, and personally review and inspect each page of your submission for accuracy, relevance, and applicability to your medical condition. Never blindly submit medical documentation to the Office of Personnel Management. Again, never give the Office of Personnel Management an additional reason to deny your disability retirement application. This advice, of course, goes “hand-in-hand” with my policy of never signing the SF 3112C (Physician’s Statement), which often releases all of the medical documentation directly to the Agency.

These are just three fundamental “Do Not” rules in preparing and filing for disability retirement. When a Federal or Postal Employee comes to me at the Reconsideration Stage for legal representation, I find that I must first correct several fundamental errors committed by the applicant. While I can almost always correct the mistakes already made, the damage can only be minimized, and never completely eradicated, because the error is already known to the Office of Personnel Management. Still, I am normally able to convince the Office of Personnel Management to approve the disability retirement application.

In the course of representing Federal and Postal Workers to obtain disability retirement benefits, I have always tried to emphasize the fact that, while it is each individual’s choice as to whether or not to hire an attorney, you should always proceed with the greatest tool available — knowledge. Disability Retirement is a benefit accorded to all Federal and Postal Employees under FERS and CSRS. However, as with all benefits, the right to it remains unclaimed unless one proves, by a preponderance of the evidence, that one is legally entitled to it. To prove your claim, you must go at it from a position of strength — and this requires knowledge. Like the Mother Rabbit who cautions her bunnies, do not allow lack of knowledge to be your stumbling block.

My name is Robert R. McGill. I am an attorney who specializes in disability retirement claims for Federal and Postal Employees. 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.