Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: A Hostile Work Environment

Unfortunately, reality often outperforms and upstages any attempt at fictional characterization of the workplace.  Often, the meanness and temperamental behavior of a supervisor in the “real” workplace can never be properly represented by an actor’s attempt in a sitcom or a drama; the persistent, irrational, capricious and outright cruel behavior and acts of “the boss” or one of his/her underlings can never be accurately depicted in fiction.  Further, the reality of the consequences of such behavior can be devastating.  Workplace stress resulting from demeaning behavior, intentional acts to undermine, cruel and arbitrary acts against a specific employee, can all result in serious medical consequences.  

It is all well and good to talk about internal procedures — of filing an EEOC Complaint; filing a grievance; filing a complaint based upon discrimination, etc.  But beyond such agency procedures to protect one’s self, there is the problem of the eruption of a medical condition, be it Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, physical symptoms of IBS, chronic pain, headaches —  some or all of which may result from such stresses in the workplace.  There is no diagnostic tool to establish the link between the medical condition and the workplace stress.  

For Federal and Postal employees thinking about filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, there is the context of harassment & stress in the workplace, and then the medical condition which prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job. Sometimes, it is difficult to bifurcate the two.  That which is difficult, however, must sometimes be accomplished in order to be successful.  The origin of the medical condition may have to be set aside, because it “complicates” the proving of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  If one is contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, the story — however real — of the workplace harassment, may have to be left behind.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Sometimes, It is the Wrong Question

If the question is asked, “Is it difficult to get Federal Disability Retirement benefits based upon a Stress Claim?” — within the context of the poorly-worded question, you may get a wrong answer.  This is because it is the wrong question to begin with.  

The concept and term “stress claim” is more appropriately formulated in the context of an OWCP claim.  It implies that one is claiming for compensation based upon a situation — a hostile work environment, a harassing supervisor, etc. — because the origin and inception of the medical condition generically characterized as “stress” implies that it is the workplace which is the originating responsibility for the very medical condition claimed.  

Such a question would thus imply a multitude of irrelevant considerations for purposes of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, such as the causality of the claim, whether the cause is merely situational (is it the supervisor causing the stress?  If so, if a Federal or Postal worker moved to another office or agency, could he or she work in the same job?), or contained within the context of the workplace. The problem with using the term “stress” in a question is that, whether as a noun or a verb, it implies too much while revealing too little.  If expanded upon (e.g., while stress may be the origin, is the medical condition Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, etc.), then the entire question takes on a new form.  Sometimes, the problem begins with the question asked which is poorly worded; and to a poorly worded question, a wrong answer might be given.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: The Origin of Psychiatric Disabilities

When preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability (Standard Form 3112A) in preparing to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, it is important to keep the essence of the statement “on topic”.  By this, is meant that the primary focus of the applicant’s statement should be repetitively twofold:  First, what the medical conditions and their symptomatologies & manifestation of symptoms are, and Second, how those medical conditions and symptoms impact one’s ability/inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  

While history and origin of a medical condition may be somewhat relevant (unlike in an OWCP case, where causality and date of injury and where/how it happened are important elements in establishing that a medical condition was somehow job related), normally in Federal Disability Retirement cases the origin of a medical condition should not be emphasized, if only because OPM does not care about it.  If the origin of one’s psychiatric medical conditions (e.g., Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, etc.) find their source from conflicts within a job, such a history may be a red flag which can lead the Office of Personnel Management to conclude that the medical condition constitutes a “situational disability“.  In a final determination as to whether a medical condition can be characterized as “situational”, while it must be looked at in its full context, nevertheless, it is the origin of a psychiatric medical conditions which is the first point of reference in making such a determination.  

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities — Origin versus Situational

While the issue concerning “situational disability” has been previously discussed and written about in my various blogs and articles, it is helpful to keep in mind certain conceptual distinctions when preparing to file for Federal or Postal Disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

The concept normally applies to psychiatric disabilities, and specifically to two major areas:  Major Depression and Anxiety.  The paradigm of such a case often involves a Federal or Postal worker who has had some difficulties, conflict with, harassment by, etc., a supervisor or coworker within the agency. The Federal or Postal worker begins to manifest symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc.  An EEO Complaint is filed; a grievance is filed; perhaps, several such alternative venues of legal processes are utilized.  Despite fighting back, the hostile work situation fails to resolve itself.  More importantly, the psychiatric medical condition continues to worsen.  

Does this simple hypothetical constitute a basis for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, or is it precluded by the legal preclusion of “situational disability”?  As with all generic paradigms, the answer is:  It all depends.  

One must look at the chronicity of the psychiatric medical condition; whether the symptoms pervade all aspects of the life of the Federal or Postal Worker; to what extent the psychiatric medical conditions impact his or her ability to perform the essential elements of the job; and to what extent the Federal or Postal worker can perform such a job in a different environment.  It is in the details of the conceptual distinctions made, which determine the course of viability in filing for Federal or Postal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities

Perhaps there will always be a suspicion that a distinction is made by a governmental entity/bureaucracy, between physical medical conditions and those which are deemed “psychological“.  For Federal and Postal workers who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, there are ample legal tools to point out to the Office of Personnel Management that such a distinction is not only improper, but moreover, contrary to the “law of the land“.  

The Federal Circuit Court has pointed out clearly and unequivocally that the law does not allow for OPM to make a distinction between that which is “objective” medical evidence and that which is “subjective“.  Further, beyond the conceptual distinction applying to the medical evidence, this means that the categories encompassing the two should not be distinguishable when applying the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement.  Thus, rational conclusions based upon clinical examinations, a long history with the patient, consistent symptoms as related to by the patient to the doctor — all are valid, and “as valid”, as the “objective” medical evidence purportedly revealed by an MRI or other diagnostic tools.  

Thus, the credence and credibility of Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and a host of other psychiatric disabilities, hold an equal level of legal validity as the long list of physical disabilities.  Don’t ever let OPM go down an argumentation route where no law exists to support it; they may often try, but it is up to the Federal or Postal Worker who is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS to meet them at every juncture of such sophistry.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement Benefits for Federal & Postal Employees: Psychiatric v. Physical Disabilities

People continually inquire as to the difference between Psychiatric v. Physical disabilities, as to whether one is more amenable to an approval over the other.  Psychiatric conditions can include a wide range of variables — from Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Agoraphobia, ADD/ADHD, and multiple other diagnoses.  Physical medical conditions, also, include a wide spectrum of disorders — Cervical, Thoracic or Lumbar conditions; various cardiac conditions; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Fibromyalgia; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Plantar Fasciitis; Migraine headaches; Lupus; Chemical Sensitivity issues; allergies; COPD; and multiple other conditions.  Is there a difference between these (and the listed conditions are by no means meant to be exhaustive, but merely illustrative of the wide range of medical conditions)?  The answer is, ultimately, No. 

The foundational essence of a Federal Disability Retirement case, whether involving Psychiatric disabilities or Physical disabilities, is the impact upon one’s ability to continue to perform all of the essential elements of one’s job.  Further, recent case law holds that OPM cannot make a distinction between “objective” medical evidence as opposed to “subjective” medical evidence, and so the old distinction between “psychological” medical conditions as distinguished from “physical” medical conditions can no longer be seriously upheld.  Ultimately, and fortunately, there is no difference between psychiatric disabilities and physical disabilities when trying to get approved for a Federal Disability Retirement case under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for Federal & Postal Employees: Situational Disability, Revisited

Remember that there is nothing wrong with issues and events in the workplace being the originating factor which instigates or otherwise propels a medical condition — often (though not necessarily always) a psychiatric condition.  The characterization of a “situational disability” (one of the basis upon which the Office of Personnel Management may attempt to deny a Federal Disability Retirement application) only becomes a problem if and when a psychiatric condition prevents a person from performing one or more of the essential elements of his or her job with a particular office, agency or department. 

If the Federal or Postal employee is unable to perform in a particular job in an office or agency, but is able to perform the same basic set of essential elements with another agency, or in the private sector, then it becomes a case of “situational disability”.  However, if the medical condition pervades other aspects of the Federal or Postal employee’s life — personal life; relationships with family & friends; impacts his or her ability to be employable in other sectors; then the medical condition is no longer one of “situational disability” — despite its origins having been formulated in the workplace.  Thus, the issue is not “where the condition came from”, but rather, “where is it now”?  The Office of Personnel Management will often attempt to blur the boundaries between the two questions, and try and characterize the medical disability as not only originating with an agency, but being limited to that particular agency.  And, indeed, the Federal or Postal employee who files a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS does not help matters when he or she wants to persist in focusing upon the events in the workplace which may have contributed to the medical condition.  Beware not to fall into OPM’s trap.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this tough economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS, that it will be difficult to “make up” the income with another job, even though a person under Federal Disability Retirement can earn up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays.

Yes, it can be tough; yes, the economy is a concern; but recessions ultimately come to an end, and while a job to make up the severe pay-cut may be long in coming, self-employment, to begin a start-up business, or to work part-time is often an excellent opportunity.

Unlike having the larger percentage of pay under OWCP-DOL benefits, a disability retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS is indeed a greater pay-cut.  But salary is not everything; the freedom of retirement, the ability to determine one’s future, and not be under the constant and close scrutiny of Worker’s Comp, accounts for much.  Where some see a severe pay-cut, others see as an opportunity to begin a second career.  And the price of freedom from those onerous fiefdoms of federal agencies is often better health, and greater enjoyment of one’s freedom and retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: Experience & the Medical Condition

Often, when a client receives the finalized disability retirement packet, I receive a response that goes something like:  “I didn’t realize I was so bad off, until I read through the prepared packet.”  While I have not personally experienced the medical conditions of my many clients over the years, I have the experience of having spoken to them, and have learned about the symptoms, the words which best describe the pain, the impact, and the symptoms which are experienced on a daily basis. 

That is why it is an absurdity for the Office of Personnel Management, for example, to continually and redundantly refer to Fibromyalgia cases as ones with symptoms which “wax and wane”.  Or, with severe Major Depression, Anxiety and panic attacks, the Office of Personnel Management will systematically deny many such claims by stating that there is no “objective medical evidence” to show that the individual is unable to continue to provide efficient service in a cognitive-intensive job.  It is the job of the attorney, in a Federal Disability Retirement case, to be the one who projects the experience of the disabled Federal or Postal employee.  The attorney does not have to personally experience the medical condition in order to properly and descriptively convey the impact of the symptoms and debilitating conditions; however, it is helpful if the attorney has had a wide range of experience — by having spoken to multiple individuals over the years who have personally experienced such conditions.  In this way, the attorney can obtain the experience to express the medical experience of the applicant.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Employee's Usefulness

Federal Employees and Postal Employees should never consider or entertain the thought that filing for disability retirement benefits is a negative judgment upon his or her lengthy and productive career.  It is merely a statement of reality — that the Federal and Postal employee has had a good career; medical conditions may have shortened the first career, but this merely means that there will be opportunities to have a second career; and, in no way does it mean that there is a blemish upon the Federal career; merely that it is time to move on to something else.  And, indeed, the interruption of the Federal or Postal career as a result of impeding medical conditions merely is a statement that you are no longer a “good fit” for a particular kind of job. Further, if you are removed from the Federal sector because of your medical inability to perform your job, such a removal is a “non-adversarial” and “non-disciplinary” action, and therefore (again) should not, and cannot, be considered a “blemish” upon one’s career. And, finally, it is often the case that it is precisely because of the long and loyal hours you put into your job, that you paid a price for such loyalty — by embracing the stresses of the job, of working despite impending medical conditions.  In other words, very often I see that the stresses inherent in the position took a large and heavy toll upon the individual, such that medical conditions resulted from the long years of such heavy toll.  There is never a need to feel guilty about taking disability retirement; you’ve paid your dues; it is time to move on to another phase of your life.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire