Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: Causation Irrelevancy

Causation and the issue of causality involves the occurrence of X as a result of an action Y.  There are direct causes, intermediate causes, interceding causes, etc., which concern whether or not an immediate linkage can be established between the action Y and the effect X.

Thus, if the white billiard ball strikes the Number 7 ball, and the latter moves forward, we say that X (the white ball) caused Y (the Number 7 ball) to move.  On the other hand, if the rooster makes its traditional cry at 7 a.m. as the sun is rising, and does so only when the sun rises, we may informally say, in an imperfect sense of causation, that “because” the sun rose, the rooster crowed.  We rarely ascribe a direct cause between X and Y, however.

For OWCP/Department of Labor cases, causation is a relevant and significant aspect of proving a case — for, in a FECA case, one must prove, as one of the elements of eligibility, the fact that the injury was “caused” by the job, while on the job, while related to the job, etc.  A significant amount of time is thus expended in proving the issue of causality in a Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation claim.

For FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement cases, however, under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, causation is not an issue.  A Federal or Postal Worker can be injured while on vacation; he or she can have the injury while at work, and concurrently (or sequentially) file for OWCP benefits and OPM Disability Retirement benefits; or the injury or medical condition can simply “occur” during his or her tenure with the Federal government.

In any and all events, it is essentially an irrelevancy.  The issue is not “how” it occurred; rather, the point is to show that, once occurred, in what manner does it impact one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job.

While causation in a FERS or CSRS Disability Retirement application may be of some historical interest, it should not be a central focus of any applicant’s statement of disability.  To do so would be to make a peripheral issue a central one, and conversely, to allow for the central issue to become less focused.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: The Difficulty of Accommodation

For Federal and Postal employees filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the issue of accommodation must be addressed at some point, and one often wonders why a Federal agency is either unwilling or unable to accommodate the medical disabilities of a Federal or Postal employee.  

The line between “unwilling” and “unable” is often a complex one, because Agencies must contend with an obligation to attempt to accommodate the medical disability, but remember that such an attempt and obligation is merely one of “reasonable” accommodation.  This means that an implicit cost-benefits analysis is quickly engaged in, where the effort, likely success, extent of any workplace adjustments, whether in the end the essential and core elements of the job functions can be accomplished even with the reasonable accommodations, etc., can successfully be implemented.

An appearance of attempting to accommodate is often all that is indulged, and so the reality is that the Agency seems more unwilling than unable. Further, the simple fact is that, many medical conditions — e.g., those which are psychiatric in nature, are simply medical conditions which are termed “non-accommodatable“.  For, regardless of what workplace adjustments are made, a Federal or Postal worker suffering from Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, delusory thought processes, etc., where symptoms upon one’s focus, concentration, ability to have a reasoned perspective, etc., are all impacted, and therefore is inconsistent with any cognitive-intensive work.  As such, the medical condition becomes “inconsistent” with the particular duties of the job, and therefore it is an unreasonable and unattainable goal to consider any accommodations.  

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement in a Tough Economy

Healthy individuals may wonder why, in such a tough economy, an individual would consider filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.  This is an economy which has been shrinking and shedding employees.  Yet, for the Federal or Postal employee whose health and increasingly debilitating medical conditions directly impact one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, the choice is actually not all that convoluted. 

Where a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform the job; where sick leave and annual leave have been exhausted to go to doctors’ appointments, or just to stay home to recover enough to make it into the office for another day; or for those who are on LWOP for greater than the time working; in such circumstances, the stark reality is that a disability annuity is better than what the future may offer otherwise.  Removal for unsatisfactory performance; being placed on a PIP; being told that there is no more work at the Postal Service; being counseled for performance issues; these are all indicators of the proper choice to make.

Yes, it is a tougher economy; but when the economy begins to rebound, the first people that private employers turn to hire are those who are essentially independent contractors; and, especially with the looming overhaul of private health insurance, a former government worker who carries his or her own health insurance is, and can be, an attractive worker to a private employer.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: It Is a Medical Issue

If a Federal or Postal Employee is still on the rolls of the Agency, or if you have not been separated from service for more than 31 days, then the disability retirement application must be routed through your agency before being forwarded to the Office of Personnel Management for processing and review.  If you have been separated from Federal Service — meaning, you have actually been taken off of the rolls of your agency (this does include being on sick leave, or on annual leave, or on leave without pay) — for 31 days or more (but not for more than 1 year, in which case you have lost your right and ability to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, because you have allowed the 1-year statute of limitations to pass by), then you must file your case directly with the Office of Personnel Management in Boyers, PA.  Whether routed through your agency or directly to the Office of Personnel Management, remember that a Federal Disability Retirement application is ultimately a medical issue — not a supervisor’s issue, not an agency issue; it is not determined by your agency; your eligibility is not determined by your supervisor.  It is, essentially, and at its very core, an issue between you, your doctor, and your inability to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Disability Retirement: OWCP & the Postal Service

For many years, being on Worker’s Comp when injured while working for the Postal Service, worked fairly well. The Postal Service, in conjunction with, and in coordination, would offer an acceptable “modified position”, delineating the physical restrictions and medical limitations based upon the treating doctor’s clinical assessment, or in accordance with the OWCP-appointed doctor. The Postal employee would then work in that “modified position”, and so long as the Postal Supervisor or Postmaster was reasonable (which was not and is not always the case), the coordinated efforts between OWCP, the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal employee would result in years of “quiet truce”, with the tug and pull occurring in some of the details of what “intermittent” means, or whether “2 hours of standing” meant two hours continuously, or something else – and multiple other issues to be fought for, against, and somehow resolved. 

The rules of the game, however, have radically changed with the aggressive National Reassessment Program, instituted in the last few years in incremental stages, nationwide. Now, people are summarily sent home and told that “no work is available”. Postal Workers are systematically told that the previously-designated modified positions are no longer available — that a worker must be fully able to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job. This last point, of course, is what I have been arguing for many, many years — that the so-called “modified job” was and is not a permanent position, and is therefore not a legal accommodation under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees. After so many years of having the Post Office and the Office of Personnel Management argue that such a “modified job” is an accommodation, it is good to see that the truth has finally come out.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Interaction with OWCP/DOL

I receive calls periodically as to whether it is of greater advantage to remain on Worker’s Comp (Department of Labor, Office of Workers Compensation Program — “OWCP”) as opposed to going out on OPM Disability Retirement.  My answer remains the same:  OWCP is not a retirement system; OPM disability retirement is indeed that — it is a retirement, where one is separated from Federal Service, and you go out and do what you want to with your life.  Every decision has consequences; every act which we engage in has inherent residual effects, and we have to balance such effects and consequences.  Thus, while OWCP benefits pay a higher rate (75% tax free with a dependent; 66 2/3% tax free without a dependent), there are restrictions:  You must comply with any and all requests (or demands) of the Department of Labor; you cannot go out and get another job, or start another career — because you are deemed “disabled” and are being paid for it.  On the other hand, OPM disability retirement pays less (for FERS, 60% the first year, 40% every year thereafter), but you have the freedom of retirement — you may go out and start another career, and make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays, without losing your disability annuity.  These — and many other factors — are some things to consider when weighing the differences between OPM disability retirement, and receiving OWCP/DOL benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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