OPM Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Conditions and Accommodations

In preparing, formulating and filing a successful Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management, under FERS or CSRS, the issue of accommodations will come up.  The Agency from which one retires under a Medical Disability Retirement will have to ultimately fill out Standard Form 3112D —  Agency Certification of Reassignment and Accommodation Efforts — which will constitute and satisfy the Agency’s attempts at “accommodating” a Federal or Postal worker in his or her current position, taking into account his or her medical conditions. 

Unfortunately, most medical conditions are deemed to be “non-accommodatable” (if such a term exists in the English Language), and this is logically as well as legally true because with or without the accommodations, one must be able to perform all of the essential elements of one’s positional description.  Minor adjustments to the workplace, or even to the work assignments, may be able to allow for the Federal or Postal worker to continue to work in a Federal or Postal position for some time, but that Federal or Postal worker must be able to perform all of the essential elements of the job, as described in the position description.   An Agency may temporarily suspend certain elements of the core functions of the job, but such temporary suspension does not constitute an accommodation under the law. 

For psychiatric medical conditions, it is rare that an Agency will be able to accommodate such a medical condition, precisely because of the inherent nature of the medical condition — that which impacts upon one’s focus, attention, concentration, and ability to organize and perform executive functions in a coherent and systematic manner.  As such, the issue of accommodation, while one which may have to be addressed in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, is normally an irrelevant, non-issue.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder is classically characterized by extreme and unpredictable mood swings between depression and manic episodes, and such alternating swings of highs and lows impact upon one’s judgment, perception, orientation, and ability to maintain a rational perspective.  This psychiatric medical condition, with its symptoms of lethargy, racing thoughts, delusional thought processes leading to long periods of excitability, alternating with unrelenting and intractable depressive moods, impacts many different kinds of duties and daily living activities.  It can impact physically-intensive job duties, and not just cognitive-intensive core elements of one’s job. 

For Federal and Postal employees who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, it is important to understand the psychiatric medical condition; whether a medication regimen returns one to a sufficient level of functional sufficiency such that one can continue to perform all of the essential elements of one’s job; and, if not, then how best to prepare, formulate, construct and complete a Federal Disability Retirement application under either FERS or CSRS.  What is often known as OPM Disability Retirement is a benefit which must be fought for, in order to secure one’s future ability to receive an income — perhaps to reach that level of functionality that one may return to the labor force despite the medical condition.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (often referred to by its acronym, PTSD), is often associated with war-time experiences and specific traumatic incidents.  Often accompanied by other psychiatric conditions (e.g., Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks), it can be characterized by symptoms of nonrestorative sleep resulting from intrusive thoughts, nightmares, inability to focus and be attentive because of hypervigilance, and multiple other similar correlative symptoms.  

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the Office of Personnel Management will often make the spurious and irrelevant argument that the applicant failed to pinpoint a “specific incident” which “triggered” the PTSD.  However, most psychiatric medical reports and narratives which I have reviewed do not necessarily require such a triggering incident.  Indeed, it can often be as a result of a series of stressful events which came to a “boiling point” where the Federal or Postal worker could no longer tolerate the stresses of daily life beyond a certain flash point — and for each individual, that point of “no tolerance” is different and distinct, precisely because each individual is a unique being.  

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD as is commonly known, is a viable basis for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS — but as with all medical conditions, must be conveyed in a narrative which is understandable and linked to one’s inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s Federal or Postal job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for Federal & Postal Employees: How to Handle those “Second-Class” Medical Conditions

Attitudes toward various medical conditions change over time.  This has certainly been the case with psychiatric medical conditions:  Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Agoraphobia, PTSD, OCD, etc.  At one time in our society, the heavy stigma placed upon such medical conditions essentially made them unacceptable.  Over time, however, as greater numbers of such conditions came to the forefront, and greater success at treatment of such conditions became evident, the validity and acceptance of such conditions have resulted in other medical conditions taking their place. 

Thus, certain conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic Pain, Chemical Sensitivity cases, etc., have become the psychiatric conditions of a prior age.  Perhaps it is because the medical profession treats such conditions as afterthoughts — where, through a process of elimination of saying that the medical condition is not X, Y or Z, therefore it is A. 

Whatever the reasons, in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, a Federal or Postal employee who is applying for such benefits who is suffering from any of the Second-Class medical conditions must formulate and compile his or her case in a thoughtful, deliberate and forceful manner.  Such an application must include adequate medical support; a clear and concise bridge between the symptomatologies experienced and the type of job which one must perform; and legal arguments which support the basis for an approval.  To some extent, this approach is no different than with any other medical condition; it is merely a reminder that one must cross all “T’s” and dot all “I’s” with that much more care.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Law

I will be writing an article of greater length on this issue, but suffice it for now that when “the law” works, it works well. A major second case has been decided in favor of the Federal employee — first, it was Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007), and now, Sylvia M. Reilly v. OPM, decided July 15, 2009. Vanieken-Ryals toppled the irrational imposition of a baseless standard by OPM — that there is a distinction to be made between “objective” as opposed to “subjective” evidence concerning medical evidence (example of the absurdity: How do you prove the existence of pain? While an MRI may show a physical condition, you cannot prove that such a physical condition equates to debilitating pain, leaving aside any quantification of pain. Similarly, how do you prove the existence of Major Depression? Anxiety? Panic attacks?).

Now, Reilly v. OPM has toppled another idol of a false standard imposed by OPM: that medical documentation which post-dates separation from Federal Service is near-irrelevant. This has never made sense, for at least 2 reasons: first, since a person is allowed to file for Federal Disability Retirement within 1 year of being separated from service, why would medical documentation dated after the separation be considered irrelevant? Second, medical conditions rarely appear suddenly. Most conditions are progressive and degenerative in nature, and indeed, that is what the Court in Reilly argues. Grant another win for the Federal employee, the law, and the process of law. It makes being a lawyer worthwhile when “the law” works.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Thoughts on Specific Disabilities

There is a view that is often proposed that, for certain medical conditions or disabilities, that a different “approach” needs to be undertaken.  Thus, by way of example, certain medical conditions such as (to name just a few, and of course, the list is by no means intended to be exhaustive) Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), various forms of Multiple Chemical/Environmental Sensitivity cases, and even psychiatric conditions such as Bi-polar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, etc. — are often thought to be somehow in a “different” category from (again, by way of example) more “traditional” medical conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Shoulder Impingement Syndrome, Osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs (cervical or lumbar), Torn ACL, Failed Back Syndrome, etc.

Thus, the question sometimes posed is:  should the former types of medical conditions somehow be treated “differently” than the latter, more traditional types of medical conditions?  My answer is, generally, “No”.  First, each individual case must be treated based upon the uniqueness of the particular case.  Second, to file a disability retirement application “differently” because you fear that OPM may not accept your particular kind of medical condition approaches the entire process in a defensive, almost defeatist manner.  Third, because Federal Disability Retirement is based upon the symptoms which are manifested, as opposed to a “category” of a medical condition, and further, how those symptoms and manifested symptomatologies impact the essential elements of one’s job, it is the emphasis upon the nexus between the symptoms and the core elements of the job which should always be emphasized, and not what your medical condition is “called” or “named” as.  Thus, as a general point of legal approach, I prepare all of my clients’ disability retirement applications in a similar vein:  that, regardless of what condition you have been diagnosed with, the symptoms exhibited and clinically identified by your treating doctor impact your ability to perform the essential elements of your job.  This is the best approach to take in all cases.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Federal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities

I am often asked, on an initial interview/consultation of a potential client, whether or not psychiatric medical disabilities (Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, panic attacks, Bi-polar disorder, etc.) are “more difficult” to prove than physical disabilities. This question is similar, of course, to the question often asked of certain other kinds of disabilities, like Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other similar (often designated as “auto-immune” disabilities) medical conditions.

In my experience, there is no single generic answer to the question of whether or not a particular medical disability is “more difficult” to prove than another. In my experience, I have gotten approved an application for Major Depression based upon a single-page note from a Psychiatrist; on the converse/inverse experience, I have had cases rejected at the First Stage of the process (but, fortunately, had the same cases approved at the Second, Reconsideration Stage) showing chronic, failed-back syndrome cases where prior surgical discectomies, multiple diagnostic MRIs showing incontrovertible basis for severe and radiating pain, and multiple specialists verifying the client’s clear and irrefutable inability to perform the essential elements of his/her job. In preparing a Federal disability retirement retirement application, my many years of experience has taught me a number of elementary & foundational lessons: First, a clear and concise presentation of providing a direct nexus between the particular medical condition and the type of job that the Federal/Postal employeee performs, is very important; Second, it is very rarely the volume of records which is convincing; rather, it is the quality of the medical report which is paramount; and Third, it often depends upon which OPM Disability Specialist it is assigned to, which sometimes “makes the difference” between approval and denial.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire