CSRS & FERS Disability: Standard Forms

Remember that Standard Forms are produced with the intent of having you believe that you are constrained by the questions as posed, by the space as constrained, and by the language as restricted.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All forms, including governmental standardized forms, are merely inquisitive templates requesting information.  If the form fails to ask the proper question, or does not pose a question such that it does justice to your particular situation or problem, then you should freely ask the question you believe should be asked, on a “continuation page”, or in an addendum created by you or your attorney.  In disability retirement applications, this is especially true of Standard Form 3112A (Applicant’s Statement of Disability).  Instead of answering only the constraining questions as posed within the framework of the form, it is often appropriate to add another page and create, and subsequently answer, relevant questions which are neither posed nor implied by the Standard Form.  This is not to say that the applicant should abuse the process by adding irrelevant questions; rather, it is to allow for the “full story” of a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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

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

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 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