Postal and Federal Disability Retirement: The Agency & the Burden of Proof

In a Federal Disability Retirement case, submitted to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, the burden of proving one’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, always remains with the individual Federal or Postal applicant.

Certainly, there are actions by the agency which may add to such proof (e.g., declaring that the Federal or Postal worker is “not fit for duty” will further concretize an assessment made by a third party; or initiating a separation from Federal Service based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job will trigger the Bruner Presumption, which then invokes a rebuttable presumption and shifts the “burden of production” (note that it is not the shifting of the “burden of proof” — a conceptual distinction important to recognize) over to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Waiting for one’s agency to act upon anything is, however, a very dangerous venture to begin with; thinking that one’s own agency will provide the proof necessary to establish one’s eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement benefits would not only be dangerous, but foolhardy.  For, at its most fundamental level, the fact that the very entity which makes a decision on a Federal Disability Retirement application (OPM) is one which is separate and independent from the agency for which one works, creates a chasm which only further magnifies the inherent problem.

OPM pays little to no attention to what the agency does — except, perhaps, when the agency attempts to directly confront and challenge a Federal Disability Retirement application.  Otherwise, don’t look for help from one’s agency (generally speaking) when one is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; such unfounded reliance will only disappoint, at best.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: You Still Have to Prove your Case

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, many Federal and Postal employees operate under the misguided presumption that, if the Agency has acknowledged one’s medical conditions, cannot accommodate the Federal or Postal employee, and explicitly concedes that the disabled Federal or Postal employee cannot perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, that an approval of the Federal Disability Retirement application is nothing more than a mere formality beyond its submission.  

Thus, for example, the scenario as painted herein might include the Flight Surgeon’s determination for the Air Traffic Control Specialist who works for the FAA, who disqualifies the ATS for either his/her medical condition, or the medication regimen that he/she is taking; or it may involved the Postal Worker who is sent home pursuant to the National Reassessment Process; or it may be a Federal or Postal worker who has been administratively separated from Federal Service based upon his or her medical inability to perform the essential functions of one’s job, and thereby is entitled to the Bruner Presumption.  

All of these case-studies are “nice”; they are promising, and there is obviously substantive and useful evidence that the Federal or Postal employee is probably eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits — but what the Agency does or says is not enough.  The Federal or Postal employee must still meet the burden of proof and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  

The Office of Personnel Management is an independent agency, separate and apart from the other Federal Agencies or the Postal Service.  What determinations are made by the other agencies will not persuade OPM of anything; in a Federal Disability Retirement case, you must prove your case of medical eligibility, above and beyond what the Agency says or does.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: Misreading the Law

As the old adage goes, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The Bruner Presumption is one of those legal tools which is often misunderstood and misapplied. The legal presumption stems from a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which basically declared (among other things) that when a Federal or Postal employee is separated from Federal Service for his or her medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, that there is a “presumption” that the Federal or Postal employee is entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management.  

Does this make it a certainty that one will receive an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application from the Office of Personnel Management?  No. Does it enhance the chances of obtaining an approval from the Office of Personnel Management?  Maybe.  

One must remember that the Office of Personnel Management, at least for the first 2 stages of the process, does not assign attorneys as Case Managers to review a Federal Disability Retirement application.  As such, relying too heavily on the “Bruner Presumption” would be a mistake.  Further, to wait for the agency to terminate you based upon your medical inability to perform your job so that you can argue that you “have the Bruner Presumption” would be foolhardy.  It is a legal tool.  In order to use it, you must apply it in the right manner.  It would be like using a screwdriver to open up a can of peas.  As another old adage goes:  “Leave it to the professionals“. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Bruner Revisited

In filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, one should never pause or hesitate from affirmatively going forward in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application based upon what the Agency will or will not do; is expected or not expected to do; or is predicted or not predicted to do.  One should simply move forward based upon one’s personal and professional circumstances, the extent of the medical condition, the impact of one’s medical condition upon one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, etc.  

Thus, for instance, where a Federal or Postal employee has informed the Agency of one’s medical condition, or one has filed for FMLA and submitted substantiating medical documentation, if the plan is to “wait” for the Agency to remove the Federal or Postal employee in order to obtain the advantage of what is generally known as the “Bruner Presumption,” such a plan is normally not the best course of action, for various reasons.  

First, the Agency may take an extraordinary amount of time, and in the end, may attempt to remove the Federal or Postal employee for “other reasons” (performance issues, for instance).  Second, whether or not one “gets” the Bruner Presumption in a case, that legal advantage is really for the Third Stage of the process — at the Merit Systems Protection Board — inasmuch as most of the Claims Reviewers at the Office of Personnel Management are not legally informed enough to know such a legal presumption from a nearby neighbor named John Doe Bruner.  And Third, one must affirmatively prove by a preponderance of the evidence, anyway, that one cannot perform the essential elements of one’s job because of a medical condition.  The Bruner Presumption, while a great thing to have, does not override the medical condition and evidence which must be presented.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: After Separation from Service (Part 2)

Of course, it is always the separation from service based upon reasons delineated other than medically-based reasons which give rise to concerns in a federal disability retirement case.  Understand, however, that the “Bruner Presumption” is essentially a “scale-tipper” for the Office of Personnel Management (supposedly) and for the Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board (of somewhat greater certainty).  By this, I mean merely that, with or without the Bruner Presumption, a Federal Disability Retirement applicant under FERS or CSRS must still prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is eligible and entitled to federal disability retirement benefits. “Preponderance of the evidence” is essentially proof such that it is “more likely the case than not”.  Thus, when all things are equal, the Bruner Presumption is supposed to tip the scale in favor of the federal disability retirement applicant. 

On the other hand, if an individual was removed for reasons other than medically-based reasons — i.e., as a hypothetical, let’s say he was removed “for cause” — an act of dishonesty; failure to follow certain agency procedures; or whatever the case may be.  Does such a removal tip the scale the other way?  Not necessarily; however, it makes gathering the proper medical evidence that much more important, and what I often do is to try and tie in the underlying behavior which resulted in the removal “for cause”, with the medical basis — if at all possible.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: the Bruner Presumption – Agency Actions II

One must never misunderstand the law and its application.  This is true in any legal arena of every area of law; when it comes to Federal Disability Retirement law, the misunderstanding of an application of law can have direct and irreparable consequences:  the failure to secure disability retirement benefits and, therefore, the financial security for one’s future.  The “Bruner Presumption” is one such application of law which is often misunderstood.  Without revealing all of its proper applications, it can (and is) often misunderstood to be equivalent to a “presumption of innocence” — but that would be wrong.  The Bruner Presumption comes about as a result of an Agency Action — of removal based upon the employee’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.  With or without the Bruner Presumption in Federal Disability Retirement law, the “Burden of Production” — i.e., of the medical documentation, the factual establishment that the Agency is unable to accommodate the individual — still rests and remains with the applicant.  One must never think that the applicability of the Bruner Presumption makes a case a “slam dunk” of any sort.  This is especially so where we are talking about those medical conditions which are often viewed as “suspect” by the Office of Personnel Management — such as Fibroymyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity cases, etc (by “suspect”, however, I do not mean to imply that such medical conditions make it harder for an applicant to get it approved; rather, it merely requires that the one who is preparing such an application, do it properly, thoroughly, and with legal force).  Remember that the initial, and continuing, burden of production always remains with the applicant; what the Bruner Presumption merely does is to “shift” some of the weight of the burden of proof over to OPM, and in the event of an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, of placing a Federal Disability Retirement case into a more favorable light with the Administrative Judge.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: What It Means to Have the “Burden of Proof”

Remember that the applicant who is requesting disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management always has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she is entitled and eligible for disability retirement benefits.  Even if the Agency proposes and effectuates a removal based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (thereby invoking the “Bruner Presumption”); nevertheless, the burden of persuasion always remains with the applicant.

Never assume anything; yes, the Bruner Presumption is nice to have, but don’t ever rely upon it to have your disability retirement benefits handed to you, because it won’t be.  The Bruner Presumption “can be rebutted if adequate evidence is identified in the record to establish that the appellant actually is not entitled to disability retirement; even with the rebuttable presumption, the appellant retains the burden of persuasion at all times to establish his entitlement to disability retirement” (See Morton v. Office of Personnel Management, 88 M.S.P.R. 691 (2001). Remember:  you always have the burden to prove your entitlement to disability retirement benefits; you must prove it; you must work tirelessly to show it.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The Bruner Presumption

Just some comments about this important concept and one which all disability retirement applicants should be aware of. It is well-established law that an employee’s removal for his or her physical inability to perform the essential functions of his job or position, constitutes prima facie evidence that he is entitled to disability retirement as a matter of law, and that the burden of production then shifts to OPM to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the applicant is not entitled to disability retirement benefits. See Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993); and Marczewski v. Office of Personnel Management, 80 M.S.P.R. 343 (1998). What this means, essentially, is that if a Federal or Postal employee is removed for his or her medical inability to perform his/her job, the “burden of production” is placed onto OPM. It is as if OPM must “disprove” a disability retirement case, as opposed to an individual having to prove his/her right to disability retirement. It is a “prima facie” case, in that, by having your Agency remove you for your inability to perform your job, it is considered a valid case “on its face”. Further, in more recent cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board has held that the Bruner Presumption also applies where “removal for extended absences is equivalent to removal for physical inability to perform where it is accompanied by specifications indicating that the decision to remove was based on medical documentation suggesting that the appellant was disabled and unable to perform her duties.” McCurdy v. OPM, DA-844E-03-0088-I-1 (April 30, 2004), citing as authority Ayers-Kavtaradze v. Office of Personnel Management, 91 M.S.P.R. 397 (2002). This means that the removal itself need not specifically state that you are being removed for your medical inability to perform your job; it can remove you for other reasons stated, such as “extended absences”, as long as you can establish a paper-trail showing that those extended absences were based upon a medical reason.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

In Filing for Disability Retirement, Remember the Basics

In the opening sentence of Davis v. the Office of Personnel Management, PH-844E-06-0242-I-1, the Merit Systems Protection Board reminds us all that the “burden of proving entitlement to a retirement benefit is on the applicant…” In past federal disability articles, I have discussed a variety of issues, from important legal principles based upon Bruner v. OPM, to showing how to build the “proper bridge” in preparing a disability retirement application. In preparing a disability retirement application, however, remember to always satisfy the “basics”, because if you fail at the basic level, you will never get to the “substantive” level to argue your case. Davis is a case about a disability retirement applicant whose application was denied at the first Stage (the “initial application stage”) because she “did not present any medical evidence to support her claim.” Strike One — how can you file a medical disability retirement application without any medical evidence?

Next, Ms. Davis failed to file her “Request for Reconsideration” within the 30-day period. She filed it 5 days late. Strike Two — you won’t even be able to argue the substance of your disability retirement case if you don’t take care of the “basics” — like filing your Request for Reconsideration in a timely manner. In OPM’s denial letter, it clearly stated: “Your Request for Reconsideration must be received by OPM within 30 calendar days from the date of your initial denial letter.” Ms. Davis had no excuse.

Now, every now and then — but very, very rarely — an exception will come along. Such was the case in Goodman v. Office of Personnel Management, 100 M.S.P.R. 43 (2005), which was cited as a distinguishing case by the Board. In Goodman, multiple factors allowed the appellant to be excused for her tardiness — including, being misled by OPM verbally over the telephone; receiving the denial letter some three weeks after being postmarked (thereby leaving her with only a week to respond); and being a quadriplegic who had to rely upon others to assist her in responding. Be aware: only under the most exceptional of circumstances will being late in responding be excused. You must take care of the basics, before going on to the substance of a case.

Ms. Davis filed an appeal to the Full Board. Her appeal was, as you might guess, denied. The Board stated that in cases such as this, where Ms. Davis “fails to show that she was not notified of the deadline and was not otherwise aware of it, or that she was prevented by circumstances beyond her control from making the request within the time limit, we will not reach the issue of whether OPM was unreasonable or abused its discretion in denying her untimely request for reconsideration.” (italics added).

Strike three. Ms. Davis is out. As I have reiterated throughout this article, unless you take care of the basics, you cannot even get to the substance of your disability retirement claim. Like the parable of the mighty army which could defeat its enemy, that army could not survive to fight the battle unless it took care of a basic need — water for its troops to cross the scorching desert to meet its enemy. It failed to take care of the basics.

In life, we are all busy doing multiple things, and when a Federal or Postal Employee comes to a point in his or her life where filing for disability retirement becomes a necessity, it is often a good idea to hire an attorney — not only to ensure that the “basics” are taken care of, bur further, to make sure that you get the opportunity to argue the substance of your particular case. My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

As an aside, let me point out some other “basics”:

1. Remember that you have one (1) year from the date you are separated from service to file for disability retirement. The one (1) year date does not begin when you stop working; it doesn’t begin when you get placed on LWOP; it doesn’t begin from the time you get disabled. It begins from the date you are separated from Federal Service.

2. For my clients (and those who are not my clients) whom I got disability retirement for — remember that you are allowed to get another job and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity you are receiving. It is earned income that counts — not rental income, not investment income, and certainly not your disability income.

3. A teaser — I will probably address this issue in my next article — the Office of Personnel Management seems to, more recently, be scrutinizing those who are already receiving medical disability retirement benefits. For those of my clients (and those who are not my clients) who receive disability retirement, remember to take OPM’s Medical Questionnaire seriously. I have had more cases than usual where disability annuitants have had their disability income discontinued. More on this later….

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire