Federal Disability Retirement Attorney: Qualia & First Person Attribution of Mental States

Private, subjective mental states are unique by self-definition; they become public knowledge only when shared with deliberate intent, revealing the inner thoughts, private conceptual pondering, and narrative voices of the subjective “I”. Pain is similar in form, in that one can mask and keep private the experiential factor of pain, just as one can remain hidden in the private thoughts one engages.

Qualia, in philosophy, has to do with the subjective experience of one’s encounter with the greater world; and the first person attribution of a mental state encompasses the “I” in the midst of that universe of contained subjectivity. The problem always is how one can and should relate the private experience when a public narrative of that subjectivity is required.

For Federal and Postal employees who must file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the problem of conveying in persuasive form and argumentation, of transversing the chasm between the “qualia” of one’s subjective mental state into the foray of medicine, diagnostic testing, clinical encounters with medical professionals, and the entire compendium of what constitutes the “objective” world, is a necessary prerequisite where the incommensurable wall must be overcome.

An effective OPM Disability Retirement application under FERS, CSRS or CSRS Offset, is like watching a gymnast on a balance beam; overstating the subjective may result in loss of that balance.  Federal employees and Postal workers who suffer from those specific medical conditions which are considered “unverifiable” through normal channels of diagnostic methodologies — Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, chronic and intractable pain, etc. — must find ways where the public description goes beyond the qualia of private mental attributes.

In many ways, we have progressed culturally; and such progressivism is found in the diminishment and near-extinguishment of that dualism between the cognitive and the physical, and this is established by the general acceptance of psychiatric conditions as being just as “valid” as physical maladies. But old haunts and biased perspectives still abound, and during such times of transition, one must still take care in how one approaches subjectivity in the wake of the yearning for objectively verifiable evidentiary components.

Like the public who watches the graceful movements of a gymnast on a balance beam, it is the roar of the crowd in appreciation one seeks, and not the gasp of disappointment when lack of balance results in a sudden and unexpected fall.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: Pain and the Fallacy of Objectivity

Pain by definition is “subjective”, if by it one means that the experiential verification of the condition is uniquely possessed by the “I”, or the subject of the experience.  By contrast, that which is deemed “objective” is presumably validated by more than the possessor of the experiential condition — i.e., by third parties; by testing for the validity and verification of an event through means other than the personal narrative of a singular subject.  Yet, if verification of an experience is accepted merely by sheer volume of a collective consensus, then most scientific revolutions in advanced discoveries would never have survived.

In Federal Disability Retirement law, it is often the argument of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that the Federal or Postal applicant has failed to provide “objective” medical evidence in presenting his or her case.  The narrative of having a condition of “chronic pain”, or “severe pain” — being “subjective” by definition — is not deemed “objective“, and therefore cannot be the valid basis alone for a Federal Disability Retirement case (or so the argument by OPM is often presented).  Even the results of an MRI will not necessarily satisfy the scrutiny of OPM; for, ultimately, an MRI can only reveal an observable abnormality — not that a person experiences “pain”.

Fortunately, there are a number of cases in law which rebut OPM in their attempt to bifurcate between “objective” and “subjective”, and such legal tools should always be cited and applied in any Federal or Postal Disability Retirement application.

While pain may indeed be subjective by definition, the objectivity of a Federal Disability Retirement application should never be based upon what OPM deems as sufficient; rather, it is the law and the long history of legal guidance by the courts which should mandate how OPM acts.  Indeed, if we let OPM’s subjective determinations rule the day, we would all be left in an existential state of pain — one which would then result in a collective consensus which may be deemed objective in nature.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Case of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is one of those medical conditions that the Office of Personnel Management systematically “targets” as a condition which is prima facie “suspect”. This is despite the fact that there are cases which implicitly “admonish” OPM from engaging in the type of arbitrary reasoning of denying a disability retirement application because they “believe” that “no objective medical evidence” has been submitted, or that the “pain” experienced (diffuse as it might be) is merely “subjective”, or that the chronicity of the pain merely “waxes and wanes”, and a host of multiple other unfounded reasonings. Yet, cases have already placed a clear boundary around such arbitrary and capricious reasonings.

A case in point, of course, is Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit case, decided on November 26, 2007. In that case, it clearly circumscribes the fact that OPM can no longer make the argument that an Applicant’s disability retirement application contains “insufficient medical evidence” because of its lack of “objective medical evidence”. This is because there is no statute or regulation which “imposes such a requirement” that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability. As long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with ‘generally accepted professional standards'”, then the application is eligible for consideration. Further, the Court went on to state that it is “legal error for either agency (OPM or the MSPB) to reject submitted medical evidence as entitled to no probative weight at all solely because it lacks so-called ‘objective’ measures such as laboratory tests.” Statues are passed for a reason: to be followed by agencies. Judges render decisions for a reason: for agencies to follow. Often, however, agencies lag behind statutes and judicial decisions. It is up the an applicant — and his or her attorney — to make sure that OPM follows the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Trying it Without an Attorney

I get calls all the time by people who tell me that they thought their particular Federal Disability Retirement case was a “slam dunk”; that the medical documentation was there; that everything looked like it should be approved at the first level.  Then, there are people who tell me the same thing after the second, Reconsideration denial — that he or she thought it should definitely pass through.  But law, and especially administrative law before the Office of Personnel Management, has peculiarities beyond a surface, apparent reality.  There is a process and a methodology of obtaining disability retirement. Can a federal disability attorney guarantee the success of a disability retirement application?  No.  Does an individual applicant have a better chance with the assistance of an attorney who specializes in disability retirement law?  In most cases, yes.  Aren’t there applicants who file for disability retirement, without the assistance of an attorney, who are successful?  Yes.  Should everyone who files for disability retirement hire an attorney?  Not necessarily. 

When I speak to a client, I try and place him or her on a spectrum — and on one side of that spectrum is an individual who works at a very physical job, and who has such egregious physical medical disabilities; on the other side of the spectrum is an individual who suffers from Anxiety, who works in a sedentary administrative position (please don’t misunderstand — many people who suffer from anxiety fall into the “serious” side of the spectrum, and I am in no way attempting to minimize the psychiatric disability of Anxiety).  Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle.  Yes, I have told many people to go and file his or her disability retirement application without an attorney.  There are those cases which are so egregious, in terms of medical conditions, that I do not believe than an attorney is necessary.  However, such instances are rare.  Thus, to the question, Should everyone who files for Federal disability retirement under FERS & CSRS hire an attorney?  Not necessarily — but in most cases, yes.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB. 

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, as long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with generally accepted professional standards,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.  As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: OPM's Methodology

When the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) approves a federal disability retirement application, a separate page from the approval letter will often be attached, which states the medical basis upon which the disability retirement application was approved. The separate page will often state something to the effect of: “You submitted an application for disability retirement based upon medical conditions, A, B, C & D; however, your application was approved for medical condition B only.”

The concern here, of course, is that if you are later selected to answer an OPM Medical Questionnaire asking you to re-establish your medical disability for continuation of your disability annuity some years later, that you make certain that you answer such a Medical Questionnaire based upon that very medical condition upon which you were approved. This is obviously important. Some have questioned whether or not you can appeal the approval letter based upon the fact that you believe OPM should have approved you based upon a different medical condition. In my view, this is not an appealable issue, and if you question OPM as to whether they should have considered you disabled based upon another medical condition, you may be in greater danger by OPM reversing themselves based upon a re-review of your case. It is best to leave “well enough alone”. Accept the approval letter based upon the identified medical condition, and inform your treating doctor that you may need his input in the future — to address that very medical condition for which you were approved.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire