Postal and Federal Disability Retirement: The MSPB & the Window of Opportunity

At the Merit Systems Protection Board, there are multiple critical points of opportunity in which to convince, persuade and otherwise have a discussion with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to reverse their earlier denial of a Federal Disability Retirement application.

Remember, however, that this is the arena and playground of lawyers.  While an applicant who has meandered through the intricate administrative process of preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, can certainly survive the administrative procedures as circumscribed by the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is a good idea to have legal representation– obviously, from the very beginning; if not, then to represent one’s interests in rebutting an initial denial at the Reconsideration Stage; if not (again), then to have proper representation before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

Whether at a Preliminary Conference to discuss the forthcoming issues, or at a Prehearing Conference — or, in preparing and filing a Prehearing Statement as ordered by the Administrative Judge at the MSPB — opportunities arise for the Federal or Postal worker to submit additional medical evidence which can potentially persuade OPM’s representative to reverse the two previous decisions of denial.  Such opportunities must be carefully embraced.  Yet, often, a Federal or Postal employee who is unrepresented at the MSPB is unaware of the opportunities which arise, at which points, in what circumstances, and the Administrative Judge is bound by duty and position to remain neutral.  Then, of course, there is the Hearing at the MSPB, in the event that OPM does not reverse.  Whatever the circumstances of the Federal or Postal employee who is or will be filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, an advocate to represent the Federal or Postal employee’s interests is paramount. Don’t “go it alone”; for, to do so will often only lengthen the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Early Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: The MSPB & Beyond, a Retrospective View

Assume the following hypotethical:  a Federal or Postal employee has filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, and has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, has gone before an Administrative Judge for a Hearing at the Merit Systems Protection Board, and now a decision has been made to file a Petition for Review.  

What is the MSPB looking for at a PFR?  

The arguments to be made will focus upon whether or not the Administrative Judge applied “the law” (collectively known for all of the statutes, rules, regulations and prior cases which have touched upon, defined, or otherwise decided upon, any and all issues concerning Federal Disability Retirement) correctly, or whether he/she made an “error of law”.  As such, from a retrospective viewpoint, what should have been done during the Hearing of the matter before the MSPB & the Administrative Judge?  The answer:  where possible, a citation of the applicable cases showing at each juncture of the evidence submitted, that it complied with a specific case and holding of a case.  With that “on the record”, it constrains the Administrative Judge from ruling against the Appellant, but more importantly for purposes of the Petition for Full Review, it establishes the errors of law which the Administrative Judge committed, for purposes of showing reversible errors at the PFR.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The MSPB Hearing

If you find yourself at the Merit Systems Protection Board trying to prove to an Administrative Judge that your are entitled to Federal Disability Retirements benefits under FERS or CSRS, and you have already filed a Prehearing Statement, and your witnesses have been approved at the Prehearing Conference, and further, you have outlined all of the issues, set forth the legal basis, and proffered the expected testimony, it is then “showtime”.  

It is obviously preferable for an applicant who is filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits to be represented by a Federal Disability Attorney — if possible, from the inception of the process, through the Reconsideration Stage, to the MSPB.  However, if a Federal or Postal employee finds that, for one reason or another, you simply cannot afford an Attorney, then here are three (3) tips if you find that you are before an MSPB Administrative Judge:  (1)  Have a doctor testify, and make sure that the testimony of the doctor is precise and to the point (2) Make sure that what you prove to the Judge correlates with what you said you would prove in your Prehearing Statement, and (3) Be prepared to make objections to any of OPM’s cross-examination questions.  Finally, remember that the point of making an objection during a Hearing is not to necessarily stop the question or answer, but rather, to preserve the point for a possible appeal.  It is ultimately difficult for a non-attorney Federal Disability Retirement applicant to formulate and prepare for an effective Merit Systems Protection Board Hearing, and further, it would be better if the Federal or Postal employee had an attorney (who is well-versed in Federal Disability Retirement law) throughout the entire process; but one must play the hand one is dealt with, and that old adage is true even with a Federal or Postal Disability Retirement case under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement for Federal Workers: The MSPB

The Merit Systems Protection Board is the arena, in a Federal Disability Retirement application, where the issues are taken out of the control of the Office of Personnel Management for an independent review of a Federal or Postal employee’s disability application to obtain the benefit.  In a Federal Disability Retirement application, the Office of Personnel Management is given an opportunity (twice — at the initial stage of the process, then at the Reconsideration Stage) to make the “right” decision (in my view, “right” being an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, at least for my clients).  

If that decision is a denial, at both levels, then the applicant has the right and opportunity to file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  At that level, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Federal or Postal employee must prove that he or she meets the criteria, under the law, to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Some de minimus extent of discovery is engaged in; a Prehearing Statement defining the issues and identifying the proposed list of witnesses must be prepared; and, finally, a Hearing is set.  It is the forum in which someone other than OPM will have a fresh opportunity to review the case, and this is a good thing.  Otherwise, only the fox would be guarding the hen house, and under that scenario, there would be very few hens left alive, if any.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Denials II

It is, indeed, frustrating when a governmental agency makes life-impacting decisions which seem to be spurious and capricious. A review of a disability retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is supposed to be thorough, with sound reasoning and a fair application of the law. And, in all fairness, the majority of cases appear to meet that standard. It may well be, of course, that since all approval letters of disability retirement applications are standard templates, with boilerplate language and instructions, and since most of my cases are approved at the first level, the impression left is that OPM does a good job in reviewing the cases.

When a case is disapproved, however, it is often the case that the denial is based upon factors which defy logic, which appear to have little or no rational basis, and which selectively focuses upon a narrow reading of the medical reports and records. Thus, often the OPM Representative will take a statement out of context, and declare that the doctor stated X when a full reading of the medical report shows that the doctor actually stated Y. This is unfortunate, and does not reflect the careful review, analysis, and fair rendering of a decision made by most OPM representatives, but occurs often enough to be of concern. On the bright side, however, is that there is always the ability to take it completely out of the hands of OPM, after a second denial — and allow an administrative judge to review it objectively, at the Merit Systems Protection Board. That is why the MSPB was created and exists — to have a third party, objective body review the decision-making process of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial II

It is important to always “define”, “corner”, and “circumscribe” any denial from the Office of Personnel Management.  If you do not, then what happens at the next level is that it becomes a “de novo” process.  Now, one might argue that all disability retirement appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board are de novo, anyway.  That is true enough — meaning, that all of the evidence is looked at “anew” and without prejudice from any previous finding by the Office of Personnel Management. 

Yet, there is the “legal” definition of de novo, and the practical effect of de novo; often, the Administrative Judge at the MSPB will, at a PreHearing Conference, turn to OPM and say, Listen, OPM, it seems that the only reason why it was initially denied was because of X, Y & Z; the applicant certainly answered X & Y in his/her reconsideration answer; is the only thing you are looking for is Z?  What this does is to narrow the issue.  Often, to save time, face, aggravation and other things, OPM will concede the narrowing of such issues, and this is true if you respond to their administrative queries by defining what they are asking for, then providing it to them, then showing how it has been provided to them, so that they are “cornered”.  Thereafter, if it gets denied and it needs to go to the MSPB, the Hearing can then proceed with a narrower, streamlined and limited number of issues to prove.  Again, the reason why it is important to define what it is that OPM is asking for, is not only for the “present” case, but in preparation for the potential “future” case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The First Denial

One should not be overly panicked when the Office of Personnel Management denies a disability retirement application at the initial stage of the process.  Certainly, the denial needs to be taken seriously; the basis for the denial (which is often couched in confusing terms, based upon conflicting — almost contradictory — assertions and claims) must be identified and addressed; additional medical documentation may be needed; the proper legal authorities must be cited.

 To put it bluntly:  while it is almost always a good idea to prepare, present, and file a Federal Disability Retirement application with the assistance, guidance and counsel of an attorney, it is essential that an OPM disability retirement denial be rebutted by an attorney who is familiar with the process, the laws, and the compelling arguments necessary in answering the reasons as stated in the “Discussion” section of OPM’s denial letter.  To panic is merely to waste time; to prepare is the wise course; to map out a cogent plan on how to win at the Reconsideration Stage — and, if necessary, the next stage of appeal, the Merit Systems Protection Board — is the wisest approach.  As Easter is a time of renewal, and Spring is now upon us, during the next few weeks, I will be “going back to basics” and reviewing  the process, the law, and the methodology of effectively applying to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits for FERS & CSRS employees.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Merit Systems Protection Board

An appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a Federal Disability Retirement case means that the disability retirement application has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management:  at the initial application stage, then at the Reconsideration Stage.  This is often considered to be the third and last try — of convincing an administrative judge (an “AJ”) that you are entitled and eligible for disability retirement.  There are, of course, two additional stages — an appeal to the Full Board and to the Federal Circuit Court — but such avenues present only the right to reverse a decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board, and no new evidence can be presented.

Thus, one might consider the Merit Systems Protection Board as the “last stop” in the administrative process.  Do not think, however, that the process must necessarily be won before the Administrative Judge in a hearing — much work and persuasive argumentation should be made to the OPM representative who is handling the case at this MSPB Stage.  The OPM representative at the Third Stage of the process is usually an attorney; they are competent; they are versed in the case-law — and thus open to be persuaded by legal argumentation.  While the administrative stages (the Initial Stage and the Reconsideration Stage) involved OPM representatives who are non-attorneys, the MSPB Stage involves seasoned attorneys who present an opportunity for persuasion and argumentation, and thus a golden opportunity to convince OPM to reverse their own decision before coming to a Hearing.  Such an opportunity should never be missed, and every effort should be made by the applicant’s attorney to have multiple contacts with the OPM representative prior to the date of the Hearing.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Beyond the MSPB

Not all cases that should be won, are won. No one can win 100% of the time; think about it — even the best Major League Baseball players strike out at least 2 out of every 3 at-bats. Most strike out every 3 out of 4 times. Fortunately, I am able to pass through a high percentage of my clients at Stages 1 or 2 of the Disability Retirement process, and that is how it should be.

Every now and again, however, a case must go to the Merit Systems Protection Board; and out of the small number that must get to that point, an even smaller number goes before an Administrative Judge who is clearly anti-employee, and ignores the law and sides with the Office of Personnel Management. Fortunately, most MSPB judges are fair and understand that disability retirement laws favor, for the most part, approval of disability retirement benefits. In those instances where, for whatever reason, a case has been denied at Stages 1 & 2, and the MSPB Judge completely ignores the strong and unequivocal testimony of the doctor, then there is still a good shot at winning the case at the 4th level — a Petition for Full Review.

Such a Stage must be approached by pointing out the legal deficiencies and, indeed, the Hearing Judge’s complete mis-application of the law. It must be done delicately and respectfully, however, because you are essentially asking that the Full Board (a panel of 3 Administrative Judges) reverse one of the Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board — to declare that the Administrative Judge “erred” in applying the law. It is possible to do — but it must be done with care, respect, and technical expertise.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: When it Gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

For whatever reason, a certain percentage of cases reach the third level in the process of applying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits:  The Merit Systems Protection Board.  If an individual is unrepresented at this level, the identical problem as that which occurs in any courtroom presents itself:  an attorney representing an individual provides an appearance of “objectivity” to the administrative judge; the advocacy on behalf of a disability retirement applicant has greater credibility, the arguments made on his/her behalf are now greater efficacy and weight, merely because the person arguing (the attorney) and the person for whom the arguments are made (the disability applicant), are not one and the same.

Whether fair or not, it is important that a disability retirement applicant obtain representation at this level, because Administrative Judges are more likely to listen to the arguments made by an attorney, precisely because the Attorney does not — other than the professional reputation of winning or losing the case — have a “personal” vested interest in the case itself.  As such, the arguments of an attorney have an appearance of objectivity, and it is that weight of objectivity which may be the deciding factor as to whether the applicant will get the disability retirement annuity, or not.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire