FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The “Nexus” Between the Reconsideration Stage and the Merit Systems Protection Board

It is an accepted fact that there is a “psychological” aspect to almost everything in life, and this is no less true in the field of disability retirement law.  The “psychological” aspect is the nexus, or bridge, from the Reconsideration Stage to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  From OPM’s viewpoint, this is the last chance to make a decision on a case, before it is taken out of the hands — and therefore “control” — of the Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, OPM wants to be able to “justify” that its decision was reasonable, and legally-based and legally sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of an Administrative Judge.   From the Applicant’s viewpoint, it is a chance to show that OPM was unreasonable for not approving the case.

While it is true that all cases which come before the MSPB are heard de novo (meaning, anew, without regard to prior decisions by OPM), OPM nevertheless never wants to be viewed as ignoring the law and appearing unreasonable, and the Applicant wants OPM to appear unreasonable in the face of the medical evidence already provided.  This is the psychology behind trying to convince OPM to approve a case at the Reconsideration Stage.  Thus, at the Reconsideration Stage, it is important to cite applicable law to OPM, to corner them into a position of appearing unreasonable if the disability retirement application is denied.  On the other hand, the reasonings and underpinning of foundational bases provided in Reconsideration Decisions are often far more superior and accurate than those handed down at the Initial Stage.  In any event, always remember that there is a “psychological” aspect to everything, and it is the duty of an attorney to identify it, use it to the best advantage possible, and cite the appropriate law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Purpose of Case Law Citation

Is it necessary for a Federal Disability Retirement Applicant to cite relevant case-laws and statutory authority when filing for disability retirement? Or, should the medical evidence be sufficient? Certainly, there is no statutory requirement that “the law” be referenced when filing for disability retirement. And, further, it is normally not a good idea for a non-lawyer Federal or Postal employee to refer to case-law or relevant statutory authority, if only because non-lawyers often mis-state the law, or misinterpret relevant case-law authority.

The primary purpose why I refer to, and cite relevant statutory authority and case law, even at the initial administrative stage of filing for disability retirement on behalf of a Federal or Postal employee (normally, I will prepare a lengthy legal memorandum for each case), is because I want to preempt any mis-statement of law to the benefits specialist reviewing the application packet. It is important at each stage of the process to point out the relevant law, the applicable case-law, the judicial opinions which have addressed the multiple issues which can deter or potentially derail a disability retirement application. While the benefits specialist at the Initial Stage of the process may not be fully aware of the applicable laws, it is the job of the Attorney to point out the law, and demand that the Office of Personnel Management conform to the relevant, current judicial constraints which should be adhered to.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: The Sensitivity of Each Case

Every Federal and Postal employee has a unique historical background, especially with respect to his or her medical condition; how the medical condition was incurred; how the medical condition progressed, deteriorated, and degenerated one’s physical abilities, until that person came to a point where he or she could no longer perform the essential elements of one’s job. Each person has a unique story to tell, and indeed, some of the historical background is applicable.

The job of an attorney, however, is to focus the potential disability retirement applicant; extrapolate the relevant medical history; refashion the story that is being told; re-tell the story of the medical condition and the impact upon the essential elements of the person’s job — in other words, to be the voice of the disabled applicant, such that the story told is presented effectively to the Office of Personnel Management. Thus, when I am interviewing a potential client, I may sometimes seem to interject myself, or attempt to curtail the person’s narrative. It is not because I am rude or uncaring; it is because it is my job as an attorney to obtain the relevant facts and circumstances, in order to assist the individual.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Methodology II

When the Office of Personnel Management approves an OPM disability retirement application, as I stated in the previous article (OPM’s Methodology), they will normally choose to approve it based upon only one of the listed disabilities. This is because, from OPM’s viewpoint, if the applicant lists multiple medical disabilities, once OPM reaches any one of the listed disabilities and finds that one of them is a basis for an approval, there is no further need for OPM to review the remaining medical conditions.

This methodology requires that future applicants consider the consequences of such a method: it is essential that the applicant base a disability retirement application upon only essential, significant medical conditions, normally best to list them in the order of significance, and further, to document a case in the order of severity.

While I have not heard of a disability retirement application being approved based upon a non-essential, minor medical condition, it is wise not to rely upon the off-chance that OPM might base an approval upon a medical condition that is somewhat “thrown in” as an afterthought, into the applicant’s statement of disability. In other words, it is not a good idea to “throw in the kitchen sink” at the last moment, thinking that by multiplying the quantity of medical conditions listed, that OPM will see how “serious” one’s medical condition is. Remember, it is not the totality of many medical conditions that is important; rather, it is the list, however small, of those medical conditions that prevent one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Situational Disability II

To reiterate: Situational disability can be an issue which can defeat a disability retirement application, precisely because OPM (and if it gets to the MSPB level, the Administrative Judge) can conclude that the Psychiatric disability in question originates and results in response to the hostile workplace environment.

These three concepts are important to understand — originate, result in, and result “in response to”. A psychiatric condition can originate from a hostile work environment, but as long as the medical condition then pervades beyond the work environment and impacts a person’s life through and through, then that alone does not constitute situational disability, because while it may have originated from A, it is not limited to A.

The second concept — results in — must be seen in the context of the condition of the psychiatric disability. Thus, does the (for example) Major Depression or anxiety result solely from the work environment, or does one experience the symptoms while at home, even while away from the work environment?

And thirdly, does the individual experience the symptoms of the psychiatric condition “in response to” his or her exposure to the work environment, or are the symptoms all-pervasive: i.e., throughout all aspects of the person’s life?

To differentiate these three concepts is important in avoiding the pitfalls of situational disability, and in helping to prepare a Psychiatrist in either preparing a medical narrative report, or in his or her testimony before an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Federal Disability Retirement: The Danger of Situational Disability

The danger of falling into the trap of situational disability, which is one of a number of reasons for denying a disability retirement application, can come about quite regularly. Especially because, in the face of contending with a medical disability that is serious enough to warrant changing one’s career, of filing for medical disability retirement — there is often the Agency’s contentious response, of needing to have the continuity of the work accomplished, of being insensitive and lacking compassion for the applicant; in such a context, the applicant views the Agency’s response as hostile.

The employee/applicant, then, in filing for disability retirement, will often make the mistake of focusing upon the hostile work environment, or the lack of compassion and empathy on the part of the Agency — and this will often warrant a denial of disability retirement based upon the medical condition of the applicant as being “situational disability” — meaning that the medical condition of the employee/applicant is limited to the work situation of that particular office or agency. This is a completely wrong-headed approach for the applicant.

That is why, when I represent my clients, I am singularly focused upon the 2 or 3 main issues that form the essence of a disability retirement case, and insist upon focusing my clients upon those very same issues, while setting aside those tangential issues which can ultimately defeat a disability retirement application. Understand that these peripheral, tangential issues may well be “important” to my client — but I would not be doing my job in representing my clients if I allowed the peripheral issues to become “front and center” — for that would be a disaster for my clients. I represent people to obtain disability retirement benefits. That is my job. That is my focus. If I allow my focus to waiver, then I am not representing my clients properly.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Stating It Effectively

Whether an attorney is necessary at the initial stages of filing for OPM Disability Retirement is a question which each individual must answer. One thing is clear, however; there are very few cases where a disability retirement application is “clear-cut” based upon the medical evidence. The reviewing personnel at the Office of Personnel Management are not doctors — though they have a “contract doctor” to review applications. It is the job of an attorney to be the advocate for the client; as such, the tools which the attorney utilize are: words, and the power of words. In taking over cases at the Reconsideration Stage, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, the mistakes that I see which clients have made prior to representation always involve ‘words’ — either too much, or too few, or stated in the wrong way, or not at all. Verbosity is rarely an asset or advantage; being succinct is almost always the better way; wise choice of words is a must; the order of delineating the medical disabilities, creating the nexus between the medical disability and the inability to perform one’s job — all of those must be stated forthrightly, descriptively, and with a touch of creativity.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire