Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: The Legal Responses

There is of course the old adage that “good fences make good neighbors“.  It is meant to magnify the importance of demarcations, and how societal mores, rules, and accepted dictates of common etiquette provide for social boundaries without which the breakdown of common decency occurs.

Fences and boundaries not only contain; they provide markings which restrain others.  The white powder placed on a football field; the painted lines on a basketball court; the pitcher’s mound from which the pitcher must throw the ball; these are all accepted boundaries — symbols of containment as well as of restraining devices to the “others”.

In a Federal Disability Retirement application to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, imagine what the outcome would be for the Federal or Postal Worker if all that existed were the originating statutes governing the criteria for a Federal Disability Retirement application.  Imagine a world in which OPM was the sole arbiter of its own statutes — of having the right to interpret the dictates of its own mandates.

Look at the recent case of Stephenson v. OPM, in which OPM interpreted the statutes of another agency (the Social Security Administration) and decided that an offset of SSDI benefits against a FERS Disability annuity could still be perpetrated even though no actual receipt of funds was received.

Laws are like fences and boundaries; they are to be used both as a shield, as well as a sword.  Use of legal arguments not only restrains a Federal Agency from acting and stepping out “too far”; they can also be used to attack and force a retreat.  But remember that, just as the fence-building should be left to the carpenter, so the sword should be used by a warrior.  In today’s parlance, don’t think that anyone and everyone can be a courtroom lawyer.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: The Left and Right Hands

Having two hands in and of itself does not guarantee cooperation of effort or a manifestation of symphonic coordination.  If the two hands (or more) are contributed by two or more people, without a central cognitive control center, there can be an undermining of efforts precisely because each hand is attempting to engage in an activity independent of the other.

Thus it is with the attempt by an injured or disabled Federal Worker to formulate a Federal Disability Retirement application through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS; and, similarly, the identical concept of cooperative efforts applies to the agencies themselves, if seen as entities with “hands”.

The problem, of course, is that OPM is a separate agency from the Federal or Postal entity through which the Federal or Postal employee submits an application.  While the Federal Agency may believe that certain actions definitively settle an issue regarding Federal Disability Retirement, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is neither bound by, nor even required to acknowledge, the validity of any such determination.

Thus, for example, a particular agency may search for a way to “accommodate” a Federal Worker’s medical conditions, and may assert that they cannot provide a reasonable accommodation.  OPM may look at that and declare that the mere fact that an agency says so, does not mean that the Federal Worker cannot still engage in “useful or efficient” service.

Contradiction?  Inherent confusion?  Or misunderstanding of the law?

It is like the man with the bionic arm:  until the arm can become in sync with the mind of the operator, it is the same as if one only has one arm.  Ultimately, such questions are a “matter of law”, and OPM is almost always wrong with respect to the law.  It is up to the applicant, or his/her attorney, to point it out, and to make sure that the two hands become coordinated in arriving at an approval of a Federal or Postal Disability Retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: The Reason for the Law’s Complexity

The growing complexity of any body of law often reflects the unintended consequences of a poorly-written statute which first created the access to a right, a benefit, or a legal assertion.  Complications and expansion of issues, clarifications of previously-obfuscated matters of law, evolve over time and begin to take on a life of its own.  

For Federal Disability Retirement law, there is the appearance of a simple process:  one only has to look at the Standard Forms which are made available to all Federal and Postal employees who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, to recognize that, at least on the surface, the administrative process seems simple enough.  

The SF 3107 series (for FERS Federal and Postal employees) and SF 2801 series (for CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests basic information of a factual nature.  The “other” series of Standard Forms — the SF 3112 series (both for FERS and CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests information directly impacting one’s Federal Disability Retirement application.  

The questions asked are quite simple, and appear somewhat innocuous; the body of law which has grown behind each question is comprised by years and decades of litigation, questioning, judicial decisions and case-law.  It is like the proverbial stranger who discovers what appears to be a tuft of hair (perhaps a mouse?) sticking out from behind a bush, reaches down and pulls, only to hear the roar of a lion for having yanked its tail.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: Complexity & the Law

The complaint heard most prevalent is that the “law” is deliberately complicated for the benefit of lawyers, and to the detriment of the lay person.  That is the one of the points which Dickens makes in his work, Bleak House — a lengthy work which meticulously follows the probate of a contested will, where the lawyers involved appear to be the only beneficiaries of the central litigation. But that only tells one side of a story.  

Complexities in any issue surface because of lack of clarity; and lack of clarity manifests itself as each case brings to the forefront questions and concerns previously unspoken or uncontested.  As an example — the issue in Stephenson v. OPM, where the U.S. Office of Personnel Management refused to recalculate one’s FERS Disability Retirement annuity even though the annuitant was no longer receiving SSDI benefits, because OPM interpreted the word “entitled” in a unique and perverse manner — could have been left alone without litigation, and therefore allowed to remain a simple matter.  

This had been going on for decades.  But somebody — Mr. Stephenson in particular — decided that OPM’s actions were unfair, and that it needed to be litigated.  Did it complicate matters?  Complexity is an inherent part of the law, and as issues become contested, the evolution of a body of law can expand into a compendium of complexity.  

It is no different with Federal Disability Retirement.  Yes, Federal Disability Retirement law is a complex body of administrative issues; it requires expertise; but if it was left alone, you can be assured that OPM would step over, on, and around many more Federal and Postal Workers who are otherwise eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits. That is why complexity can go both ways — for the agency, but also for the Federal or Postal employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Employee Medical Retirement: Continuation of the Offset Issue

As noted previously, the issue of whether or not OPM needs to recalculate one’s FERS Disability Retirement annuity upon losing one’s SSDI benefits should now be resolved.  

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has been arguing for years, if not decades, that despite losing SSDI payments because the recipient has engaged in substantial gainful activity, that no recalculation is in order because the annuitant is still technically “entitled” to the benefits.  

The argument which the undersigned writer made before a 3-Judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, is the following:  How can one “offset” something with nothing?  As King Lear said to his daughter Cordelia when she refused to shower him with flowery praises of love, “Nothing comes from nothing”.  

Whatever word-games one may engage in, one cannot offset an amount of zero against another amount.  Further, since the FERS (and CSRS) Disability Retirement annuitant is allowed to make up to 80% of what one’s former position pays, it made absolutely no sense to penalize the individual who was receiving SSDI but loses it for making too much money, to not place him/her in the same position as one who never received SSDI.  

Common sense seems to have prevailed.  

The security of knowing that, in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, the Courts will actually reverse a nonsensical position of a government agency, is indeed something to smile about.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire