Federal Worker Disability Retirement: The Gatekeeper of Stress

The gatekeeper’s duties encompass the power to determine who enters and exits, and to monitor guests, invitees and generally to control the inflow and outflow of traffic to and from the designated property.

Stress originates from one’s external environment.  It can be physical — as in manual labor which, often because of repetitive use and impact, can result in injuries or occupational hazards; as well as mental and emotional, resulting in secondary or tertiary medical conditions as a natural and direct result thereof.  One often thinks of the gatekeeper as merely he who guards the physical security of a piece of property.  But stress also requires a gatekeeper — especially for the psychological impact which it portends.

In contemplating the preparation, formulation and filing of a Federal and Postal Disability Retirement application, whether under FERS or CSRS, with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, it is important to understand the inherently problematic nature of attempting to feature “stress” as a medical condition itself.  While it may spawn other conditions, because stress is a part of almost every workplace environment, it rarely serves to be a successful “condition” standing alone.  In conjunction with medical conditions often associated with it, however, it can be effectively and persuasively be identified and delineated.

All of us are ultimately gatekeepers for the things which impact our lives.  Each of us have innate spectrums for tolerating varying levels of environmental factors, including workplace stress.  When the gatekeeper allows too many security violations to occur, it may well be a basis for “removal” from the environment.  And while stress itself may not be the single best basis for exiting the environment, there will surely be other medical conditions which result from the stresses, which will justify preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Early Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: Generalized Anxiety Disorder

It may seem antithetical to talk about the psychiatric condition of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in filing for Federal Disability Retirements benefit under FERS or CSRS, especially during the Holidays — but, in fact, the analogy with the high stress which many Federal and Postal workers feel because of Christmas, New Years & other holidays is especially relevant.  

Let me elaborate.  Such a time period as “The Holidays” in fact often brings greater stresses in a person’s life — for it is precisely a time when one is “supposed” to feel joyous, when in fact an individual’s internal, personal turmoil may contradict the outward appearance which one manifests.  Such a combination — of the high level of stress one is experiencing, at a particular time (the Holidays), may be considered a “situational” psychiatric condition, because (hopefully) it will subside once the time-period passes.

This is a good way to understand what distinguishes between a “situational disability” (which is disallowed in Federal Disability Retirement applications under either FERS or CSRS) and “non-situational disabilities” (which are viable medical conditions pervading all aspects of one’s life, regardless of time or situation).  

The Office of Personnel Management will often attempt to characterize the psychiatric condition of Generalize Anxiety Disorder as one of merely “situational occurrence” — i.e., of being particularized and categorized as occurring only within the confines of a particular department, a particular workplace situation, or a period of time when a specific supervisor or coworker is present (sort of like occurring during the Holidays).  But Generalized Anxiety Disorder, properly diagnosed by a treating physician, is rarely, if ever, situational, and in fact is a serious psychiatric condition which qualifies for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

Do not let the Office of Personnel Management fool you; Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a viable psychiatric medical condition, especially if it pervades all aspects of your life, and it prevents you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your job as a Federal or Postal employee under either FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: Anxiety

Anxiety is a special form of a psychiatric disability — one which must be approached with thoughtful care in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.  While often accompanied by Major Depression, and sometimes panic attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder will often have corollary discussions in medical treatment and office notes of references to employment issues involving workplace harassment, discrimination, hostile work environments, etc.  Such references to workplace issues can lead to the Office of Personnel Management denying a Federal Disability Retirement application based upon “Situational Disability” — a medical disability which is self-contained within a particular workplace situation, but which may not necessarily extend to a different office environment with the same job requirements.  

To make moot a claim of situational disability, one would have to show that the medical condition — Anxiety — pervades all aspects of one’s life, and is not just circumscribed by the particular harassing environment of a specific workplace, or a Supervisor, or a hostile workplace, etc.  The more one focuses upon the workplace as the instigating causal force behind one’s anxiety, the more it will compound the problem of being deemed a “situational disability” in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.  Ultimately, it is irrelevant what “causes” the anxiety; the important thing is that a person suffers from a medical disability, and the primary focus should be upon treatment of that condition.

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

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Actions I

Can adverse agency actions to terminate a Federal employee impact a potential disability retirement application?  The short answer is “yes”, but the longer answer would have to consider multiple factors:  what is the underlying basis of the adverse action?  Does a person’s medical conditions (often psychiatric, cognitive dysfunctions impacting upon less than stellar performance ratings, or perhaps impacting upon the essential elements of one’s job in other ways) explain, in whole or in part, the “adverse” nature of the action?  Has there been a “paper trail” established with respect to informing the Agency of medical conditions, such that it can “explain” — again, in whole or in part — the apparent basis of the adverse action?  Is the Agency open to negotiating a material change in the proposed removal — i.e., from one which is adversarial (and therefore would be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board) to one based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (with a stipulation that no appeal will be filed, thereby saving the Agency’s time, resource, and personnel).  It is important to “get involved” in the process of any contemplated Agency action — early.  If the Agency puts an employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), it is time — in fact, overdue — to become active in the future plans for filing a disability retirement application.

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