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

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Beyond the MSPB

With certain notable exceptions (e.g., documents which could not be obtained prior to or during the Hearing; an SSDI approval which was awarded after the close of the record, etc.), the Hearing which is set for the Merit Systems Protection Board (better known by its acronym, the “MSPB”) is the time and place to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a Federal or Postal employee is eligible to meet each of the legal criteria in a Federal Disability Retirement case.

MSPB Hearings for Federal Disability Retirement applications are performed telephonically; but beyond the time to submit all additional medical documentation and have any witnesses testify, it is the time to set the stage for a future Petition for Review (PFR) or an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Any legal issues concerning the eligibility criteria, accommodations, sufficiency of medical documentation, etc., needs to be argued at this stage of the process, in order to be able to make the argument later that the Administrative Judge committed “legally reversible” errors in his or her Initial Decision on the case.  As with anything well-built, a solid foundation must be prepared, and in the arena of legal battles, the introduction of clear legal precedent is what establishes the foundation for a future appeal.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement Benefits for Federal & Postal Employees: Beyond the MSPB

Because filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS is a process which may potentially take the full stages — from the initial application stage, to the Reconsideration Stage, to the Merit Systems Protection Board; then, if denied at the MSPB, to the Petition for Full Review, and if denied there, to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals; as a result, it is a good idea to be represented by a Federal Disability Attorney.  Remember that the last two stages of the process only allow for arguing an error of law.  To that extent, if one pauses for a moment and reflects — everything ultimately comes down to an error of law.  Very rarely is there a misinterpretation of the facts. 

In a Federal Disability Retirement case, the medical evidence is fairly straightforward.  Yes, there can be some arguments concerning the interpretation of the extent and severity of the medical conditions, but the substantive focus of disagreement between the applicant and the Office of Personnel Management normally comes down to the appropriate application of the standard of law, and whether the application has met the burden of proof and satisfied the legal criteria for eligibility.  As such, the essence of a Federal Disability Retirement application comes down to whether OPM — and subsequently the Administrative Judge — has mis-applied the law.  Thus, at each stage of the process, it is important to lay the foundation by pointing out where the error of applying the law happened — at each and every stage of the process.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Law

Technically, the law does not have to be applied at the administrative, agency-level of the Office of Personnel Management.  Let me clarify:  one likes to always think that when an applicant for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS is filing for the benefit, that the agency which oversees the application will review it with an overarching umbrella of criteria which is governed by an objective foundation deemed as “the law”.  Thus, in a perfect world, one might imagine an efficient line of technocrats sitting in cubicles, all with a reference book containing the relevant laws governing the eligiblity criteria for Federal Disability Retirement.  But that would be in a perfect world; and since such a perfect world fails to exist, what we have is an arbitrary sprinkling of various personnel, who collectively comprise the Office of Personnel Management, some of whom apply the law well, and some of whom apply the law less than competently. 

To some extent, the arbitrary methodology applied at the agency level is counter-balanced with the threat of a review by an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, followed by a Full Review at the MSPB, then to be further appealed to at the Federal Circuit Court level; but it is nevertheless sometimes disconcerting that, at the Agency level, this peculiar animal called “the law” is not uniformly applied in all cases, at all times.  And sometimes rarely.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Disability Retirement: The "Process"

In my last writing, I briefly discussed why filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is, and must be looked upon as, a “process” as opposed to a mere “filing” with an expectation of an “automatic” approval.  This is because there is a legal standard of proof to be met, based upon a statutory scheme which was passed by Congress, and based upon a voluminous body of “case-law” handed down by the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.  With this in mind, it is wise to consider that, because it is a “process” with two administrative “stages” to the process, as well as an Appeal to an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, then potentially to the Full Board via a Petition for Review, and finally to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals — as such, each “step” in the process would naturally have a different and “higher” level of the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement. 

Because of this, it is often a frustrating experience for applicants, because a rejection or denial at the First Stage of the process often reveals the utter lack of knowledge by the OPM representative of the larger compendium of case-laws that govern and dictate how disability retirement applications are to be evaluated and decided upon.  Often, the so-called “discussion” of a denial letter is poorly written, meandering in thoughtlessness, and self-contradictory and with unjustifiable selectivity of statements from a medical report or record.  Such poor writing reflects a first-level decision-making process, and can be a frustrating experience upon reading the denial letter.  It is good to keep in mind, however, that the entire application procedure is a “process”, and each level is designed to have a greater level of competency and knowledge in the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Petition for Full Review

The next step beyond the Merit Systems Protection Board, of course, is a choice: You can either file an immediate appeal to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, or file a Petition for Review before the Merit Systems Protection Board, where the decision of the Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board will be reviewed by a panel of 3 Administrative Judges.

Normally, I recommend taking the latter route, only because it allows for another step to win, as opposed to putting all of one’s eggs in the proverbial “one basket”. If an individual has put on a case without being represented, by going through OPM’s procedures, then putting on a case at the MSPB, I will rarely accept a case at the Petition before the Full Board level.

My reasons are essentially as follows: First, it was not “my case”. The applicable criteria to have an MSPB case reversed by filing a Petition for Full Review, is to point out an “error of law” that the Judge made. If I put on a case before an administrative judge at the MSPB, I try and put on “my case” — one that I believe in; one that I am an advocate for; one that I am passionate about, because it is a case on behalf of a client whom I represent.

That is why I win most of my cases, both at the OPM level, as well as before the MSPB. When someone else has gone through the process, it is simply not “my case”. To nitpick for an error of law that the administrative judge had made, when it was not my case, and not the case-laws that I relied upon in putting on my case, is simply something that I have little interest in doing. That is not to say that a case cannot be won at a Petition for Full Review. I have won enough of them; it is a matter of pointing out the error of law which the administrative judge made; but a passionate argument is essential to winning such a review.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement and the Agency Cover of “Accommodation”

I am receiving too many phone calls from people who have been fooled by his/her Agency that they have been “accommodated”, and therefore they cannot file for disability retirement. From Federal Workers at all levels who are told that they can take LWOP when they are unable to work, to Postal Workers who are given “Limited-Duty Assignments” — all need to be clear that your are NOT BEING ACCOMMODATED, AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO FILE FOR DISABILITY RETIREMENT. Let me clarify this issue by first discussing the important case-law of Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Bracey was, and still is, a landmark decision — one of those cases that pushed back the attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to create a broad definition of what “accommodation” means, and thereby try and undermine a Federal and/or Postal Employees’ right to disability retirement. 5 U.S.C. 8337(a) states that a disabled employee is eligible for disability retirement unless the employee is able to render “useful and efficient service in the employee’s position”, or is qualified for reassignment to an existing vacant position in the agency at the same grade or level. What this basically means is that, if you have a medical condition and you cannot do one or more of the essential elements of your job, you are entitled to disability retirement unless your Agency can (a) do something so that you can continue to work in your job, or (b) reassign you to an existing vacant position at the same pay or grade (all of those words are key to understanding the Bracey decision). As to the first issue, if your medical condition, either physical or psychiatric, is impacting your ability to perform the key functions of your job (in other words, “useful and efficient service” means that you must be able to perform the “critical or essential” elements of your position), then it means that you are eligible for disability retirement — unless the Agency can reassign you to an existing vacant position (the second issue). As to the second issue, what the Court in Bracey meant is that there has to be an actual position existing, which is vacant, to which a person can be reassigned and slotted into, at the same pay or grade.

In Bracey, the Office of Personnel Management was trying to have it both ways: they argued that (a) an individual is “accommodated” if he can do his “job”, and the “job” which the Agency was having Mr. Bracey do was a “light-duty” job that was made up by the Agency. As a result, the Office of Personnel Management had denied Mr. Bracey’s application for disability retirement, and the case reached the Merit Systems Protection Board, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on appeal. More recently, Agencies have been trying to convince Federal workers that they can take “Leave Without Pay” and work less hours; or revert to part-time status; or perform some other functions — and this constitutes an “accommodation”. Or, in the case of Postal Workers, especially those who have intersecting OWCP issues, one is often told that “Limited-Duty Assignments” constitute an “accommodation”. However, for the latter, it is important to review such assignments — does it include jobs from another craft? Are you offered a new “Limited Duty Assignment” each year, or every two years (which would imply that it is not a permanent assignment)? Can a new supervisor or Postmaster come in tomorrow and declare that there are no longer any “Limited Duty Assignments” available (which is often the case)?

Remember that a “position” in the federal employment system is “required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it. The ‘resulting position-classification’ system is ‘used in all phases of personnel administration’. 5 U.S.C. 5101(2)” (Bracey at page 1359). It cannot be a position “consisting of a set of ungraded, unclassified duties that have been assigned to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id.

Similarly, for Postal employees, you cannot be slotted in your craft position, but then be given duties crossing over from other crafts; and you cannot be told that you have been slotted into an already existing “vacant” position, but then be offered the same “Limited-Duty” position a year later. If it was truly a permanent “vacant” position, why would you be offered the same position a year later?

Remember that under 5 C.F.R. Section 831.502(b)(7), an offered position must be, among other things, of the same tenure as the position from which the employee seeks disability retirement. “Tenure” is defined at 5 C.F.R. Section 210.102(b)(17) as “the period of time an employee may reasonably expect to serve under his current appointment.”

If you are a Federal or Postal employee, and you find this discussion about the Bracey decision to be somewhat confusing, do not let the complexity of disability retirement laws keep you from inquiring about your eligibility. In its simplest form, disability retirement is about 2 issues: Are you able to perform the essential elements of your job? If not, Can your Agency slot you into an already-existing position at the same pay, grade and tenure, and not just in some “made up” position that hasn’t been graded and classified”? If your answer is “No” to both questions, then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits.

As true with all things in life, it is always better to affirmatively act with knowledge, especially knowledge of the law. Like the Tibetan proverb, to act without knowledge of the law is to act blindly. To fail to act, or to allow your circumstances to control your destiny, is to allow your Federal Agency or the U.S. Postal Service to dictate your future for you. If you are disabled, and unable to perform the critical elements of your job, then you should consider the option of disability retirement. Opting for disability retirement does not mean that you can no longer be productive in society in some other capacity; indeed, you are allowed to receive a disability annuity and go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays. Opting for disability retirement merely means that you have a medical condition which is no longer a good “fit” for the type of job you currently have.

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.

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire