Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: The Legal Responses

There is of course the old adage that “good fences make good neighbors“.  It is meant to magnify the importance of demarcations, and how societal mores, rules, and accepted dictates of common etiquette provide for social boundaries without which the breakdown of common decency occurs.

Fences and boundaries not only contain; they provide markings which restrain others.  The white powder placed on a football field; the painted lines on a basketball court; the pitcher’s mound from which the pitcher must throw the ball; these are all accepted boundaries — symbols of containment as well as of restraining devices to the “others”.

In a Federal Disability Retirement application to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, imagine what the outcome would be for the Federal or Postal Worker if all that existed were the originating statutes governing the criteria for a Federal Disability Retirement application.  Imagine a world in which OPM was the sole arbiter of its own statutes — of having the right to interpret the dictates of its own mandates.

Look at the recent case of Stephenson v. OPM, in which OPM interpreted the statutes of another agency (the Social Security Administration) and decided that an offset of SSDI benefits against a FERS Disability annuity could still be perpetrated even though no actual receipt of funds was received.

Laws are like fences and boundaries; they are to be used both as a shield, as well as a sword.  Use of legal arguments not only restrains a Federal Agency from acting and stepping out “too far”; they can also be used to attack and force a retreat.  But remember that, just as the fence-building should be left to the carpenter, so the sword should be used by a warrior.  In today’s parlance, don’t think that anyone and everyone can be a courtroom lawyer.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: The Reason for the Law’s Complexity

The growing complexity of any body of law often reflects the unintended consequences of a poorly-written statute which first created the access to a right, a benefit, or a legal assertion.  Complications and expansion of issues, clarifications of previously-obfuscated matters of law, evolve over time and begin to take on a life of its own.  

For Federal Disability Retirement law, there is the appearance of a simple process:  one only has to look at the Standard Forms which are made available to all Federal and Postal employees who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, to recognize that, at least on the surface, the administrative process seems simple enough.  

The SF 3107 series (for FERS Federal and Postal employees) and SF 2801 series (for CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests basic information of a factual nature.  The “other” series of Standard Forms — the SF 3112 series (both for FERS and CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests information directly impacting one’s Federal Disability Retirement application.  

The questions asked are quite simple, and appear somewhat innocuous; the body of law which has grown behind each question is comprised by years and decades of litigation, questioning, judicial decisions and case-law.  It is like the proverbial stranger who discovers what appears to be a tuft of hair (perhaps a mouse?) sticking out from behind a bush, reaches down and pulls, only to hear the roar of a lion for having yanked its tail.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: Complexity & the Law

The complaint heard most prevalent is that the “law” is deliberately complicated for the benefit of lawyers, and to the detriment of the lay person.  That is the one of the points which Dickens makes in his work, Bleak House — a lengthy work which meticulously follows the probate of a contested will, where the lawyers involved appear to be the only beneficiaries of the central litigation. But that only tells one side of a story.  

Complexities in any issue surface because of lack of clarity; and lack of clarity manifests itself as each case brings to the forefront questions and concerns previously unspoken or uncontested.  As an example — the issue in Stephenson v. OPM, where the U.S. Office of Personnel Management refused to recalculate one’s FERS Disability Retirement annuity even though the annuitant was no longer receiving SSDI benefits, because OPM interpreted the word “entitled” in a unique and perverse manner — could have been left alone without litigation, and therefore allowed to remain a simple matter.  

This had been going on for decades.  But somebody — Mr. Stephenson in particular — decided that OPM’s actions were unfair, and that it needed to be litigated.  Did it complicate matters?  Complexity is an inherent part of the law, and as issues become contested, the evolution of a body of law can expand into a compendium of complexity.  

It is no different with Federal Disability Retirement.  Yes, Federal Disability Retirement law is a complex body of administrative issues; it requires expertise; but if it was left alone, you can be assured that OPM would step over, on, and around many more Federal and Postal Workers who are otherwise eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits. That is why complexity can go both ways — for the agency, but also for the Federal or Postal employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Human Element & Application of the Law

It may well be that technological advances will one day allow for imputed algorithms to precisely calibrate and decide everything in life; but for the time being, we must all deal with the human element in the process of decision-making.  

Comparative stories abound about how X obtained disability retirement benefits with minimal documentary proof, and even less of an actual medical condition.  It is always an anomaly as to how one can possibly answer the query which involves the following:  “X told a friend of Y, who knows of Z who filed and got his Disability Retirement benefits approved within T-amount of time”.

The particulars of each case must always determine the outcome of the case; some stories become inflated with the telling of the narrative when passed through third parties multiple times; but, on the other hand, there is the possibility that the final narration of the story is entirely true.  The reason is because the human element is still the determinative factor in any Federal Disability Retirement application.  

There is no computerized algorithm which is applied in making a determination at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  And, so long as human beings continue to remain a part of the administrative, bureaucratic process in scrutinizing a Federal Disability Retirement application, by analyzing the content and substance and applying the relevant laws, there will never be a perfect continuity or consistency of application.  

In some ways, this is a good thing; for, as each human being is unique, so the story of each medical condition and the impact upon one’s inability to perform all of the essential elements of one’s positional duties, in preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, is also particularized and unparalleled.  May it be so in the future, lest we ourselves become mere drones in this world of conventionalized perspectives.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: He Who Dictates the Law…

He who dictates the law, controls the conditions and criteria which govern a process.  Whether such dictation is an accurate reflection of the actual substance of the law, of course, is another matter.

Thus, when the Office of Personnel Management applies their 7-part criteria, they purportedly and in declarative form assert that it is based upon the substantive law which is extrapolated from the statutory authority which underlies Federal Disability Retirement laws, statutes, regulations, and expansive case-law as handed down from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board decisions and opinions rendered by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals cases.

Merely asserting that a given set of legal criteria has been applied, does not constitute a verification of the proper interpretation of what the law means.  Proper interpretation requires legal analysis, an understanding of the context of how the law was applied, in what fact-scenarios the law was cited, and an argument as to whether it applies in one’s own set of factual circumstances.

Indeed, often the U.S. Office of Personnel Management will describe a linear state of a Federal or Postal employee’s set of medical reports, conditions, etc., then merely declare that the legal criteria was applied, then (without any explanatory nexus between the facts and the conclusion) make a decision stating that the medical conditions “did not satisfy the legal requirements” — without any bridging explanation as to why such a statement should be accepted as true.

Having the authority to dictate the law is one thing; such authority does not mean that one is right, or that such authority grants the agency any great insight into proper legal reasoning.  Fortunately, there are appellate procedures, such as the next step in the process — the Second Stage of the process (Reconsideration Stage), and beyond, to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Extrapolating Carefully from “The Law”

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is important to recognize the major legal cases (those “landmark cases”) from which many other cases derive their foundational basis.  Such cases form the fundamental and overriding criteria of a legal arena, and this is no different in arguing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, either for Federal or Postal employees.  Furthermore, in citing a case to argue for one’s position of eligibility and entitlement, it is equally important to have read the cases carefully, and to argue the merits of an issue persuasively and accurately.  

One of the worst things that a lay, non-lawyer applicant can do is to mis-cite a case or a statute, and its meaning and ancillary conclusions.  For, when the Office of Personnel Management reviews a case and refutes a particular issue, and further points out that a legal precedent or statutory authority has been mis-applied, one’s credibility as to the substance of the application is not only undermined, but further, the viability of one’s legal argument has been subverted.  As such, it is normally advisable to leave the law to lawyers — and in Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS or CSRS, to leave it to lawyers who specialize in the field. For, to do little or no harm to one’s self is certainly better than to saw off the branch which one has grasped onto, no matter how tenuous the position to begin with.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Legal Arguments

Whether and to what extent legal arguments in Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS or CSRS should be made, should rarely be ventured into by non-lawyers.  The boundaries of legal arguments are naturally constrained for lawyers both internally and externally:  internally, because (hopefully) lawyers are trained to recognize that maintaining the integrity of legal precedents is vital to the process, and externally, because all legal arguments are ultimately subjected to the review of a Judge — in the case of administrative laws governing Federal and Postal Disability Retirement, at the first instance by the Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, then potentially at the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.  When laymen attempt to make legal arguments, there is the added danger of misinterpretation and mis-application of the law, which can further injure the chances of an Applicant filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits to obtain an approval.  And, finally, such chances for success may be further damaged if it needs to come before an Administrative Judge for review.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire