OPM Disability Retirement: Influences

The fear that failure experienced in one path & process will impact and influence another process is one that is often of concern.

When a Federal or Postal employee files for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, there are often concurrent and parallel paths which are undertaken — whether it is concurrently filing for OWCP (Worker’s Comp) benefits; SSDI (which is a requirement under FERS, anyway); a third-party personal injury claim; application for unemployment benefits, etc.  And then, of course, there are EEOC Complaints which may be filed; collateral lawsuits, and other administrative and judicial processes which may be entered into in parallel fashion.

Do any of these other processes impact or influence a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS?

Fortunately, Agencies are like uncoordinated hands appended to multiple personnel with different brains and different neurological centers; rarely do they communicate with each other.

Even assuming, however, that some sort of communication does occur, because the applicable laws and criteria which govern each independent administrative process is different from each other, it is rare that a denial in one administrative process will adversely impact a Federal Disability Retirement application for a Federal or Postal employee under FERS or CSRS.  Imagine that — Federal agencies not coordinating with each other.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The OWCP Black Hole

Many people rely upon the “generosity” of FECA (OWCP) payments during the period of temporary total disability, and indeed, being tax free and paying 75% of one’s salary (with dependents) or 66 2/3% without, one can easily become reliant upon such benefits. But being on OWCP does not protect the Federal or Postal Worker from being administratively separated from service for extended absences, or for one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, or “unavailability for duty” or other similar basis, to promote the efficiency of the Federal Service.  The agency needs someone to fill the position and do the job.

Normally, at a fairly early stage in one’s period of enduring and suffering from a medical condition or injury, one can assess the nature, extent and severity of the medical condition.  With that in mind, it is a good idea to begin thinking about filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  The security of OWCP benefits is attractive; however, OWCP is not a retirement address.  FECA will “cut off” the benefits at some point — unless you are somehow lost in the black hole of their payment roster, which happens periodically.  However, there are too many horror stories of a Federal employee who stayed on OWCP, was separated from Federal Service, never filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits within 1 year of being separated, and then one day received a fateful phone call…

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Template Approach

The Office of Personnel Management essentially renders both approvals and denials of a Federal Disability Retirement application with a “template” approach.  This is not surprising, but it is little noticed, and this is why:  For disabled Federal and Postal workers who file for Federal Disability Retirements benefits under FERS or CSRS, and who are not represented by a federal disability attorney, it is their “one-and-only” exposure to the Office of Personnel Management.

Thus, if an approval is received, that approval is the first and only time of having any correspondence from the Office of Personnel Management.  Similarly, if a denial is received, then that is the first exposure and contact from the Office of Personnel Management.  There would be no way of knowing whether or not the approval letter, or the denial letter, was or was not a “standard template”.  Certainly, in a denial letter from the Office of Personnel Management, there are references to submitted medical documents, or supervisor’s statement, or some other document which was part of the Federal Disability Retirement application; but the remainder of the denial letter is in “template form”. 

However, when an attorney represents a Federal or Postal worker and receives an initial denial letter, or a denial at the Reconsideration Stage, it is an obvious issue, because any attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law has viewed hundreds, if not thousands, of such letters.  Why is it important to recognize that the format is in “template” form?  For many reasons.  The type of template; from whom the template is received; the extent of the template; the issues presented in the format; these are all helpful for any experienced Federal Attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law, to successfully answer such formatted denials.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Disability Retirement: OWCP, SSD, NRP, Etc.

Nothing works in a vacuum.  Issues surround medical disabilities, the Federal and Postal workforce, Social Security Disability benefits, and Federal Disability Retirement benefits, as well as temporary total disability benefits received from the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs — they all intersect in one way or another, and the intersection of all of the issues create a maze of confusion which is often difficult for the Federal or Postal worker to successfully maneuver through the multiple landmines, dead-ends and potential traps. 

Such intersecting difficulties also arise in what the Postal Service has initiated in the last few years — the “National Reassessment Program” — a euphemism for a massive attempt to get rid of anyone and anyone who is not fully productive.  Under this program, the Postal Service is essentially getting rid of all light-duty assignments; and, of course, such a program intersects with Federal Worker’s Comp, because many light-duty or “modified duty” employees are under the umbrella of OWCP-offered work assignments and modified positions and duties.  People are sent home with the reason given that there is no longer any “light duty” jobs; they are then instructed or forced into filing for OWCP benefits; whether Worker’s Comp will actually pay for temporary total disability is a big question mark. 

Ultimately, I believe that the answer will be found in filing for OPM Federal Disability Retirement benefits. The NRP (National Reassessment Program) is simply a macrocosmic approach of a large agency (the U.S. Postal Service), mirroring a microcosmic approach (the approach of most agencies towards individual Federal or Postal employees who have a medical condition which prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job) in dealing with “less than fully productive” Federal or Postal employees.  Then, of course, there is the intersecting issue of filing for Social Security Disability benefits, which you have to do anyway, under FERS — but whether one actually gets it, is another issue.  All of these issues intersect; rarely are these issues isolated; the consequential impact of all of these issues need to be viewed in a macro manner.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Agency Interaction

Federal Agencies often act like little fiefdoms.  This is not necessarily a negative thing; each agency is an independent entity, and each has a province of responsibilities which it must carry out and execute according to the statutory mandate provided by Congress.  As independent entities, each agency acts without coordination or regard to other agencies. 

Thus, while approval for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration will mean an offset of monetary payments under FERS, such interaction between the two agencies simply goes to the financial payments — not to the substantive issues of approval or disapproval of a disability retirement claim.  Similarly, while receipt of temporary total disability payments from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs means that you cannot concurrently receive payments under CSRS or FERS disability retirement (unless you are receiving a scheduled award from OWCP/DOL), the substantive basis of approval or denial of a claim rarely overlaps.  This is because each agency has its own independent criteria for eligibility — meaning that, for Social Security, the “disability” has a higher standard of “total disability”, whereas under FERS & CSRS, it is a lower standard of “inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”.  Similarly, with OWCP/DOL, the issue of “causality” and whether it is “work-related” is often the important component of consideration. 

All of this is not to say, however, that an approval of a disability benefit from one agency,or a report from a doctor considered for one benefit, should not be used by the applicant for submission to another agency.  Indeed, this should be done — but carefully, and with thoughtfulness. 

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Doctor

Doctors hate administrative duties.  They went to medical school, and they want to practice medicine, not law.  If they wanted to engage in vast amounts of paperwork, they would perhaps have gone to law school.  As such, paperwork, writing medical narrative reports for their patients, providing medical opinions in a report — they are part and parcel of the dreaded “paperwork” — somewhat like filling out all of the forms for medicare, medicaid, insurance, etc. to get paid. Such paperwork is often left to the “administrative staff”, and therefore doctors are only sporadically required to actually prepare any paperwork.

This presents a peculiar problem for a potential disability retirement applicant, because in order to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, an applicant must have a doctor’s narrative report which delineates certain issues, addresses certain issues, and renders certain opinions.

Thus, the crucial question becomes: How does one approach a doctor and convince him or her that preparing a proper medical report is an integral aspect of treating the patient? The answer: It must be done with diplomacy, sensitivity, caution, guidance, and understanding, all bundled into one. Above all, it begins with a relationship — a patient-doctor relationship that has been formed over many, many years. And, indeed, that is the requirement under the case-laws at the Merit Systems Protection Board governing disability retirements — that those opinions rendered by treating doctors of long duration are accorded greater credibility than single-examination doctors. And it all makes sense.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability for Federal and Postal Employees: The Federal Disability Attorney

I often get calls from people who have filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, from people who are represented by an Attorney but who, for one reason or another, are not satisfied with the work that the attorney has performed.  It is not, in my opinion, proper for an attorney to criticize or judge the work of another attorney, because each attorney has his or her particular methodology in the practice of law.  The fact that another attorney’s methodology of practicing a specific area of law (in this case, Federal disability retirement law) may differ from mine is not a basis for me to criticize another attorney.  The mere fact that a disability retirement application, prepared and submitted by another attorney, is denied by the Office of Personnel Management, is not a basis for concluding that the application packet was prepared in less than a professional manner.  Indeed, if that were the case, I would be subject to the same type of criticism each time one of my client’s disability retirement application was denied at any given stage of the process.  Further, and more to the point, it is a waste of time to criticize the past; what another attorney did or failed to do is besides the point.  The focus needs to be:  What is necessary to move forward, compile additional supporting documentation, and help get the disability retirement packet approved at the next stage of the process.  As to whether or not an individual should switch attorneys mid-stream, that is not for me to say; as with everything in life, such determinations must be made based upon consideration of all of the facts and circumstances of the case, and the client must do what is in the best interest of his or her future.
Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

I often get calls from people who have filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, from people who are represented by an Attorney but who, for one reason or another, are not satisfied with the work that the attorney has performed.  It is not, in my opinion, proper for an attorney to criticize or judge the work of another attorney, because each attorney has his or her particular methodology in the practice of law.  

The fact that another attorney’s methodology of practicing a specific area of law (in this case, Federal disability retirement law) may differ from mine is not a basis for me to criticize another attorney.  The mere fact that a disability retirement application, prepared and submitted by another attorney, is denied by the Office of Personnel Management, is not a basis for concluding that the application packet was prepared in less than a professional manner.  Indeed, if that were the case, I would be subject to the same type of criticism each time one of my client’s disability retirement application was denied at any given stage of the process.  

Further, and more to the point, it is a waste of time to criticize the past; what another attorney did or failed to do is besides the point.  The focus needs to be:  What is necessary to move forward, compile additional supporting documentation, and help get the disability retirement packet approved at the next stage of the process.  As to whether or not an individual should switch attorneys mid-stream, that is not for me to say; as with everything in life, such determinations must be made based upon consideration of all of the facts and circumstances of the case, and the client must do what is in the best interest of his or her future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: an Art Form

As with all effective submissions — pleadings, motions, legal memorandums and, alas, Federal Disability Retirement applications — it should never be approached in a mechanical, one-to-one ratio-like, mathematical manner.  Of course it should contain the technical terms, the medical terms, and the legal arguments.  However, disability retirement under FERS & CSRS — especially the Applicant’s Statement of disability and any legal arguments — should not be matter of matching up a one-to-one correspondence between the medical condition and the particular essential elements which it prevents or impacts.  Certainly, the effect and the conclusion should contain that conceptual correspondence; however, as all good writing contains a technical side, it is also important to weave the story of the human condition and see the writing as an “art” form.

The impact of the human story is important in convincing and persuading the OPM representative to not only understand the medical condition, but to get a sense of empathy for what the applicant is going through.  It is a delicate balance to achieve; yes, the hard legal arguments should be made in order to “force” OPM to see that, legally, they are obligated to approve a disability retirement application; at the same time, if you can touch the empathetic nature of the OPM representative, so much the better.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Denial at the First Stage

Many individuals who have tried to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under CSRS or FERS get the disability retirement application denied at the Initial Stage of the process.  Would I rather have had that person come to me at the First Stage and have me prepare & file it?  Yes.  Are the mistakes made by the unrepresented Federal or Postal Worker irreversible?  No.  Would the disability retirement application been approved at the First Stage had it been prepared and filed by me?  Probably.  This is not to say, however, that all of my cases get passed through at the First Stage.  However, many of the mistakes which I see over and over, made by unrepresented individuals, could — and should — have been avoided. 

Further, many people who call me after getting the initial denial are surprised to hear me tell them that I don’t care what the OPM denial letter states.  While making for interesting bedside reading, the fact of the matter is that once you have read one such denial letter, you’ve essentially “read them all”.  Rarely is there anything new in an OPM denial letter.  OPM representatives use a template, and fill in dates and references to various medical reports and doctor’s records; but the conclusion of the denial letters are fairly identical:  the medical evidence is considered “insufficient” to meet the legal criteria to be eligible for disability retirement benefits.  It is the job of the attorney to go back to the doctors, get the proper medical documentation, then argue the law to the Office of Personnel Management.  The Second (Reconsideration) Stage of the process is a critical stage — for, if it is denied at this level, the next level takes it a “notch” higher — before an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire