OPM Disability Retirement: Further Reflections on Accommodations

Because the term “accommodations” is rarely understood in its technical and legal sense, there is often the danger of a Federal or Postal employee who is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS to “shoot one’s self in the foot” in the very use of the term — or in checking certain boxes on the application form (specifically, SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability), and further, there is the added danger that the Agency, in completing a Supervisor’s Statement or the SF 3112D, will mis-apply and mis-state the import, significance or relevance of any actions taken in attempting to assist the Federal or Postal employee.

Indeed, in a Supervisor’s Statement (SF 3112B) there are many instances in which the Supervisor completing the form will contradict him/herself when it comes to the issue of accommodations.  Moreover, the applicant him/herself will often mis-state the issue of accommodations on SF 3112A.

The term “accommodations” has a very narrow definition, and must be used and applied to the advantage of the Federal or Postal employee who is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  Additionally, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the Office of Personnel Management also (whether deliberately or by chance) uses the very misuse (by the Applicant) of the term to its advantage.  In all cases, the term “accommodations” must be used and referred to carefully, technically, and with full insight of all of its consequences in the use or misuse of the word.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Technical Application of Terms

Wittgenstein’s contribution to Western Philosophy was twofold:  On the one hand, his insight into the role of language and how much (if not all, according to him) of philosophy’s substantive problems and complexities could be unraveled through the analytical dismantling of linguistic confusions, and secondly, the idea that philosophy as an academic discipline should not be given greater stature than any other — in other words, he believed that philosophy was a waning and anachronistic field which would eventually wither on the vines of history, and properly so.

While the undersigned disagrees with the latter assessment, it is the former contribution concerning “language games” and their import to society, daily living, and even to the technical world of legal jargon, which is of interest and relevance.  Lawyers necessarily have a “language game” of their own.  Within the peculiar universe of legal terms, the technical application of such “legalese” has direct and dire consequences if not understood properly and applied narrowly.

In the world of Federal Disability Retirement law, the term “accommodations” is often and profusely applied by agencies and Human Resources Personnel, but more often than not, in a loose and inappropriate manner.  Agencies bandy about the term, to wit:  “Mr. X. was accommodated by allowing for temporary light duty“; “We provided him with an accommodation by letting him take liberal sick leave and LWOP”; “Ms. Y was accommodated with instructions not to lift over her medical restrictions”; and other such implied applications of the term.

Which of the previously-cited statements constitute a technically correct use of the term “accommodation” within the context of Federal Disability Retirement?

Answer:  None of them.

Language games have inherently peculiar traits and rules of application; within the parameters of Federal Disability Retirement, too often the rules of usage are not complied with.  The consequences of non-compliance, unfortunately, is that Federal and Postal employees actually believe that they are being “accommodated”, when in fact they are not.

Further, believing that one is being accommodated by an agency may lead to the mistaken belief that one is ineligible for Federal Disability Retirement, when in fact one has always been eligible precisely because the agency cannot or has failed to provide a legally viable accommodation.  Look into the proper use of terms, and the technically correct application of terms.

In the end, Wittgenstein was right:  Language games reveal more about the competence of those who play them, than about the lack of precision exhibited by human behavior.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for US Government Employees: The Agency’s Attempt

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the issue of “accommodations” will necessarily surface, if only because the Agency must complete SF 3112D — the Form which is entitled, “Agency Certification of Reassignment and Accommodation Efforts” (which bureaucrat came up with that title?).

Agencies will often choose the wrong box to check because they will either misread the choices or misunderstand what the statements mean.  For instance, in the third choice of Question 4, it states, “Yes, describe below the accommodation efforts made, attach supporting documentation and provide narrative analysis of any unsuccessful accommodation efforts.”  The problem with the choice itself is that the entire concept of “accommodations” has been clarified, modified, and thoroughly discussed in cases which have been brought before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and such court opinions have been issued subsequent to the original meaning of the term when the Standard Form was first issued.

But when the Agency completes the form, they will often answer the question in terms of “allowing for liberal use of sick leave” or “letting the employee refrain from doing X, Y or Z”,  etc.  But allowing for temporary, light duty work does not constitute a “legal accommodation“, and thus does not go to the requested information.  In fact, the loosely-used term of “accommodation” is actually no accommodation at all.

What to do about it when it happens?  One must be discreet in how to approach it.  For most cases, the agency’s lack of understanding will have no impact at all, and it should not be responded to.  In other instances…

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Question of Accommodations

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, certain essential issues must be addressed, including:  the medical condition itself (obviously); the impact of the medical condition upon one’s ability/inability to perform the type of positional duties required in one’s job (also quite obvious); the length of the medical condition itself (it must last for a minimum of 12 months); as well as multiple issues surrounding the question of whether the Agency can “accommodate” a medical condition.

The question of accommodations has been widely discussed by the undersigned author, especially in light of the case of Bracey v. OPM and multiple subsequent cases.  Nevertheless, despite much discussion on the subject, and attempted clarification between the legal, technical usage of the term “accommodation” and the more loosely understood concept of an agency “accommodating” an individual, there is often a surrounding confusion about the conceptual distinctions being made. This is because, perhaps inherently, the technical term of art is not self-evident.

Take, for instance, Question 7a on SF 3112A, where the form asks the question, What accommodations have you requested from your agency?  This question implies that you may have done something “wrong” if you have not specifically requested a certain type of accommodation — meaning, that you must have the knowledge to request of an agency the particular accommodating act of the agency which would allow you to perform all of the essential elements of one’s job.

Yet, this implicitly contradicts the very existence of SF 3112D, Agency Certification of Reassignment and Accommodation Efforts — which clearly places the burden of any attempted accommodation upon the agency, where — upon receipt of the disability retirement packet, or the medical evidence at any time — the agency must see if there are any jobs available or any method of accommodating the Federal or Postal employee such that he or she can perform the essential elementsof the job.

Thus, while the question (7a of SF 3112A) may have an underlying tone of a threat (as in, what have you done wrong?), it is in fact a fairly irrelevant question, and should be addressed as such.  Remember, there is a distinction to be made between the question, the answer given, and the relevance of either.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire