Federal Worker Disability Retirement: The Reason for the Law’s Complexity

The growing complexity of any body of law often reflects the unintended consequences of a poorly-written statute which first created the access to a right, a benefit, or a legal assertion.  Complications and expansion of issues, clarifications of previously-obfuscated matters of law, evolve over time and begin to take on a life of its own.  

For Federal Disability Retirement law, there is the appearance of a simple process:  one only has to look at the Standard Forms which are made available to all Federal and Postal employees who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, to recognize that, at least on the surface, the administrative process seems simple enough.  

The SF 3107 series (for FERS Federal and Postal employees) and SF 2801 series (for CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests basic information of a factual nature.  The “other” series of Standard Forms — the SF 3112 series (both for FERS and CSRS Federal and Postal employees) requests information directly impacting one’s Federal Disability Retirement application.  

The questions asked are quite simple, and appear somewhat innocuous; the body of law which has grown behind each question is comprised by years and decades of litigation, questioning, judicial decisions and case-law.  It is like the proverbial stranger who discovers what appears to be a tuft of hair (perhaps a mouse?) sticking out from behind a bush, reaches down and pulls, only to hear the roar of a lion for having yanked its tail.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: Complexity & the Law

The complaint heard most prevalent is that the “law” is deliberately complicated for the benefit of lawyers, and to the detriment of the lay person.  That is the one of the points which Dickens makes in his work, Bleak House — a lengthy work which meticulously follows the probate of a contested will, where the lawyers involved appear to be the only beneficiaries of the central litigation. But that only tells one side of a story.  

Complexities in any issue surface because of lack of clarity; and lack of clarity manifests itself as each case brings to the forefront questions and concerns previously unspoken or uncontested.  As an example — the issue in Stephenson v. OPM, where the U.S. Office of Personnel Management refused to recalculate one’s FERS Disability Retirement annuity even though the annuitant was no longer receiving SSDI benefits, because OPM interpreted the word “entitled” in a unique and perverse manner — could have been left alone without litigation, and therefore allowed to remain a simple matter.  

This had been going on for decades.  But somebody — Mr. Stephenson in particular — decided that OPM’s actions were unfair, and that it needed to be litigated.  Did it complicate matters?  Complexity is an inherent part of the law, and as issues become contested, the evolution of a body of law can expand into a compendium of complexity.  

It is no different with Federal Disability Retirement.  Yes, Federal Disability Retirement law is a complex body of administrative issues; it requires expertise; but if it was left alone, you can be assured that OPM would step over, on, and around many more Federal and Postal Workers who are otherwise eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits. That is why complexity can go both ways — for the agency, but also for the Federal or Postal employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Medical Disability Retirement: The Only Real Standard

In legal parlance, there are various and multitudinous “standards” — of proof; of evidence; of law, etc.  Some have higher, more stringent requirements; others are considered fairly de minimis, and can be satisfied with sufficiently targeted evidence.  All, however, share a common thread — that of persuading the trier of facts.

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, the standard of proof to be applied is one of “preponderance of the evidence”, which is considered a fairly low standard.  However, the only real standard of proof in any case — whether in administrative law, such as Federal Disability Retirement, or in civil litigation, criminal court, etc. — is one of pragmatic reality:  whoever hears the case, it is necessary to persuade the decision-maker.

Obviously, there is a distinction between an onerous standard, such as “beyond a reasonable doubt”, in comparison with a lower standard of proof such as “preponderance of the evidence”.  Whether, if and when, one has met a standard of proof, is not based upon a scientific calculus, and indeed, that is precisely why in closing arguments, an attorney will repeatedly argue that one has met the X-standard of proof, and these Y-reasons are why.

Theoretically, persuasive argumentation is not necessary if the facts themselves prove the argument.  In reality, however, it is the argument which brings the facts together into a coherent whole, and presents them to the viewer within a context and a specific perspective, such that the viewer or recipient of such information and facts can make a logical connection between a disparate conglomeration of facts, and reaches a conclusion that yes, the purpose for providing such facts has met its goal, etc. The key is to argue without seeming to argue.

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, it is important to understand this point of pragmatism:  One can get lost in the morass of legal parlance, and worry excessively about meeting the legal requirements; in the end, it all comes down to presenting an effective, persuasive Federal Disability Retirement packet, such that one receives a letter of approval from the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: He Who Dictates the Law…

He who dictates the law, controls the conditions and criteria which govern a process.  Whether such dictation is an accurate reflection of the actual substance of the law, of course, is another matter.

Thus, when the Office of Personnel Management applies their 7-part criteria, they purportedly and in declarative form assert that it is based upon the substantive law which is extrapolated from the statutory authority which underlies Federal Disability Retirement laws, statutes, regulations, and expansive case-law as handed down from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board decisions and opinions rendered by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals cases.

Merely asserting that a given set of legal criteria has been applied, does not constitute a verification of the proper interpretation of what the law means.  Proper interpretation requires legal analysis, an understanding of the context of how the law was applied, in what fact-scenarios the law was cited, and an argument as to whether it applies in one’s own set of factual circumstances.

Indeed, often the U.S. Office of Personnel Management will describe a linear state of a Federal or Postal employee’s set of medical reports, conditions, etc., then merely declare that the legal criteria was applied, then (without any explanatory nexus between the facts and the conclusion) make a decision stating that the medical conditions “did not satisfy the legal requirements” — without any bridging explanation as to why such a statement should be accepted as true.

Having the authority to dictate the law is one thing; such authority does not mean that one is right, or that such authority grants the agency any great insight into proper legal reasoning.  Fortunately, there are appellate procedures, such as the next step in the process — the Second Stage of the process (Reconsideration Stage), and beyond, to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: OPM’s Standard of Proof

In reviewing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the mandate of burden is determined both by statute and regulation, and the Merit Systems Protection Board reiterates the burden of proof in each of its decisions — that of proving one’s case by a “Preponderance of the Evidence“.  

This is a relatively low standard of proof — of showing that one is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS based upon a showing that, with all of the evidence considered, it is more likely than not that the Federal or Postal employee has shown that he or she cannot perform, because of one or more medical conditions, one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  

There is often a question as to whether this same standard of evidentiary showing applies to the Office of Personnel Management, and this question is posed because of the statements made in many of the denial letters (which then prompts a necessary request for Reconsideration, or an administrative appeal to the 2nd Stage of the process; or, if denied at the 2nd Stage — the Reconsideration Stage — then an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board) issued by the Office of Personnel Management, to wit:  The evidence you submitted did not show a “compelling” reason why you could not…; The medical evidence did not show that you had to be “excluded from the workplace completely”; and other statements which seems to require a higher showing than that of “preponderance of the evidence“. 

OPM is supposed to follow the same standard of proof — that of preponderance of the evidence.  Sometimes, they need to be reminded of it.  

However, inasmuch as the safety mechanism for review of an improper standard is an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, such a reminder often must take the form of an appeal.  Without the appeal basis, the Office of Personnel Management can ignore the relevant statutory burden of proof.  But then, that would not be the first time that an agency acted in a non-compliant manner.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: “It May Sound Good”

There is the statutory legal criteria which is mandated by law, by case-law, and by regulatory dictum as to the proper application of review in making a determination on a Federal Disability Retirement application, whether under FERS or CSRS.  Yet, the question is whether or not the Office of Personnel Management has applied the proper legal criteria in making its determination, and the answer to such a question can only be evaluated based upon the language which is utilized by OPM in its denial letter. 

An approval letter issued by the Office of Personnel Management is entirely unrevealing, precisely because it is simply a template letter advising the approved Federal Disability Retirement annuitant of the next steps to follow.  However, when a denial letter is issued by the Office of Personnel Management, often the Claims Representative will insert language which “sounds good” and proper, and even convincing — but ultimately, wrong as far as the proper application of the law is concerned.  For example, OPM may assert with unequivocal brevity that there lacks “compelling medical evidence” in the Federal Disability Retirement application.  “Compelling” is not a legal criteria required by statute, case-law, or regulatory dictum.  As such, it is a meaningless word-usage.

Moreover, it is harmful to a case because it means that OPM applied a standard of review which is nowhere found in any statute.  Further, it gives an appearance of authenticity and authoritative credibility where none exists.  What to do about it?  It needs to be addressed and pointed out — but diplomatically.  Diplomacy is nothing more than a forceful rebuttal clothed in the finery of courtesy, but it is a necessary ingredient in establishing the proper tone and tenor of a response to OPM.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Employee Medical Retirement: Statutory Violations

As with most bureaucracies, the Office of Personnel Management is first and foremost established and guided by statutory mandate.  However, there is a distinction to be made between the establishment of a particular agency, and the mission and substantive enforcement of the mission as mandated by statute.  

Often, in its very decision-making process of reviewing, evaluating and deciding upon a Federal Disability Retirement application (whether under FERS or CSRS), it is important to recognize that if a decision is made erroneously, it does not imply or infer a statutory violation.  The statute is open to various interpretations, and such openness lends itself to a wide array of discretionary decision-making.  Complaining or fuming about whether or not OPM violated its statutory mandate is an act of futility; the process itself provides for a paradigm of “checks and balances”  — of having the Merit Systems Protection Board and an Administrative Judge look at a case and hold a Hearing on a case “de novo” — meaning, “anew” or “starting fresh”.  

Further, if one believes that the MSPB Hearing and Administrative Judge rendered a wrong decision, there is the further step in the process of a Petition for Full Review, or an appeal to the Federal Circuit Court for review of any error of law made in the decision-making process.  However, the best course of action if one is still before the Office of Personnel Management, or about to present one’s case at the Hearing Stage of the MSPB, is to focus upon the substance of one’s case, and not upon whether or not OPM or anyone else violated its statutory mandate.  

Save your energy and choose your battles; moreover, it is important to keep a singular focus upon the proper goal — of obtaining one’s Federal Disability Retirement annuity.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire