OPM Disability Retirement: The Complication of Accommodations

The problem with most people is that they come at a conversation with a selective focus — and listen for that which they want to hear, and filter all other information which fails to fit the paradigm of their predetermined perspective.

In preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, the question of accommodations via Standard Form 3112D comes to the fore — often because of the selective focus of issues on the part of OPM.

The fact that an agency may have engaged in work-place modifications, or allowed for temporary alleviation of certain elements of one’s job description; or even provided a state-of-the-art ergonomic chair with 3-speed controls with horizontal landing mechanisms — does not mean that the agency was able to, or did, accommodate the Federal or Postal employee under the legal meaning of that which constitutes a viable “accommodation” .

For, that which the agency does must allow for the Federal employee to perform the essential elements of his or her job, and any such attempted “accommodation” which does not meet that standard, is technically not an accommodation at all.  It is merely an artifice and a cosmetic make-over in an effort by the agency which allows for the agency to declare that they have “accommodated” the individual Federal or Postal employee.

Rarely does the question on SF 3112D get accurately responded to; for, the concept of “attempted” accommodations is precisely the point — if it was attempted, and did not work, then the agency has an obligation to concede and describe that point; but from the Agency’s myopic perspective, any “attempt” constitutes an accommodation, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management will embrace such an assertion with open arms.

What to do about it?  Always focus upon the central point of a Federal Disability Retirement application — it is a medical retirement.  Thus, the doctor’s opinion is sacrosanct, and should be repetitively emphasized.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Agency Actions & OPM

The argument in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS goes as follows:  An Agency has determined that a Federal or Postal employee is medically unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; that Federal or Postal employee cannot be accommodated; the case-law states that, at a minimum, the agency conclusions have a persuasive effect upon a Federal Disability Retirement application; ergo, the Office of Personnel Management should approve the Federal or Postal employee’s Federal Disability Retirement application under either FERS or CSRS.

The problem with such an argument, if relied upon exclusively, is threefold:  (1)  The statutory mandate as to which agency makes a determination upon a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS is misplaced, (2) The Agency, whether the Flight Surgeon at the FAA who determines that an Air Traffic Controller is medically unqualified to continue in his or her job, or the Postal Service who determines pursuant to the National Reassessment Process (NRP) that there is no longer a job available at the Postal Service, or any other agency which determines that no accommodations can be provided — has not applied all of the legal criteria under the laws and statutes governing Federal Disability Retirement applications, and (3) the focus from the perspective of the agency is a “second-tier” focus — of whether an accommodation can be provided to the Federal or Postal employee to see if the efficiency of the Agency can continue, as opposed to the “first-tier” issue of whether the Federal or Postal employee has a medical condition such that it satisfies all of the criteria for a Federal Disability Retirement application.  

As such, it is the focus of the respective agencies which differentiate the possibility of an agency action being merely persuasive, as opposed to determinative, in a Federal Disability Retirement applicationunder either FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Continuing Confusions

In Federal Disability Retirement law under FERS & CSRS, the issue concerning accommodations can continue to remain a rather confusing area of law.  This is especially true when an Agency allows for an individual, either in the Postal Service (which is becoming rarer because of the prevailing winds of the National Reassessment Program) or in the non-Postal, Federal sector, to remain in a position and perform much of the lighter duties of the job, and to allow for one or more of the essential duties of the job to be delegated to others, or not be performed at all.  Now, such a situation can continue on for years, and there is nothing inherently wrong with such an arrangement (aside from the fact that the other Federal workers to whom such work is “delegated” may grumble and complain about fairness or, more likely, that some of the work is never completed), especially if the work which the injured individual performs is valuable to the Agency — even in such a “light duty” status.  

What must be kept in mind, however, regarding the relevance and significance to filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, is that throughout the entire time-period of being on such light duty, the Federal or Postal worker could have, at any time, filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits and should have been approved.  This is because such temporary “light duty” arrangements never constituted an “accommodation” under the law, and the Federal or Postal worker was eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits regardless of remaining in the “light duty” job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Don't Confuse the Standards

People who call me for advice, who are potential candidates as clients for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, often interchangeably use terms which apply to different standards:  standards of total disability as opposed to a medical disability which impacts one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; whether a medical condition is an “accepted” disability (a concept which is often used in Social Security disability cases); whether a person can file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits even though he “hasn’t reached MMI” (“Maximum Medical Improvement”) — which is language encompassing a concept familiar to OWCP/DOL (Worker’s Comp) cases; or, on a different level, the statement that an agency has been “accommodating” an employee by allowing him/her to take sick leave, Leave Without Pay, or to “not have to travel as much” — mistakenly or loosely using the term “accommodation”, when in fact such agency actions do not constitute a legally viable accommodation, as that term is used in Federal Disability Retirement laws. 

It is the job of the attorney to correct, clarify, and otherwise explain the proper terminology and precise application of concepts in Federal Disability Retirement cases.  It is not surprising that people who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS use the various terms in error, or mix terms unknowingly — for there is alot of misinformation “out there”; it is the job of an Attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law to clarify such confusions.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: To Resign or Not To Resign

I am often asked whether or not it is okay to resign from the Agency prior to either (1) filing for disability retirement or (2) receiving a decision from the Office of Personnel Management. A decision to resign from the Agency must be weighed very carefully, for there are multiple factors which must be considered.

I will try and outline a few of the considerations to be weighed:

(1) What advantage is gained by resigning? If it is merely to avoid the hassles of dealing with the Agency (the Agency may insist upon updated medical documents every couple of weeks; they may call and harass you every week; you may have an unsympathetic supervisor, etc.), then I normally advise against resigning. There is no advantage to resigning, other than the quietude of being separated from service. As an attorney, I believe that is not enough of a reason.

(2) What is the disadvantage of resigning? There may be many: Any leverage to force the agency to cooperate with a disability retirement application may be lost; if your doctor has not yet written a medical narrative report (and, believe me, for some doctors, that can take months), the doctor will have to be reminded that any statement of employment impact must pre-date the date of resignation; you lose the leverage of that which the Agency holds most dear, for no price: your position. For the position you fill, that slot which suddenly becomes vacant once you resign, is that which is most dear, most valuable for the Agency: and to resign is to give it up without having the Agency pay any cost.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Recurring Issues of Disability Accommodation, Light & Limited Duty, and the Form Filling of the OPM SF 3112D PDF File

The issue of Agency Accommodations — whether or not an agency can truly “accommodate” an individual; what constitutes a legal accommodation as opposed to temporary light-duty arrangements which do not constitute legally viable accommodations under the standards as expressed in Bracey v. OPM and other cases — keeps coming up in the form of questions and concerns.

Let me just state a few thoughts: First, obviously, the best scenario is if the Agency checks off block 4(a) of SF 3112D, acknowledging that the “medical evidence presented to the agency shows that accommodation is not possible due to the severity of the medical condition and the physical requirements of the position.” Second, however, even if the Agency does not check off 4(a), it is not necessarily a problem, or even a valid concern. Agency Human Resources personnel are notoriously ignorant of the current case-law, and often mistake ad-hoc temporary assignments as constituting an “accommodation”, when in fact they represent no such standard or level of acceptability in disability retirement law. Finally, it is always mindful to remember that disability retirement is a medical issue, not one which is determined by non-medical personnel, and that is why it is important to focus first and foremost upon obtaining a legally sufficient medical narrative report.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Accommodation Under FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement

The issue of Accommodations is always an important one in FERS & CSRS disability retirement cases. Agencies on the one hand will often attempt to “put together” a set of duties for the employee to perform, and try and keep a productive employee with the Agency.

There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it may even be commendable for the Agency to try and “accommodate” a good employee in such manner. However, such an ad hoc set of duties is not legally an acceptable “accommodation”, and when it comes to filing for disability retirement, it does not preclude a person from being able to file for, and be eligible for, disability retirement. Court cases have upheld this view.

Thus, in Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2001), the Federal Circuit Court delineated and outlined the applicable provisions governing disability retirement, stating that “the pertinent OPM regulation elaborates on the statutory definition by providing that an employee is eligible for disability retirement only if (1) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year; (2) the condition results in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the employee’s position; and (3) the agency is unable to accommodate the disabling condition in the employee’s position or in an existing vacant position.”

Note this last provision, because that is the “all-important language” with respect to the issue of accommodations. What the Court in Bracey stated, is that the term “accommodation” is a legal, precise term, and it means that in order to be a true accommodation, the Agency must do one of two things: Either, provide for working conditions such that an employee can continue to perform all of the essential elements of the position that the employee is occupying, or place that employee into an existing vacant position — at the same pay or grade. This latter point is also important: in Bracey, the Court clearly stated that an employee must be reassigned to a “vacant” position, and not one which was merely “made up”, and the reasoning of the court is clear: the Court Stated:

“We Agree with Mr. Bracey that OPM’s argument fails, because the term “vacant position” in section 8337 refers to an officially established position that is graded and classified, not to an informal assignment of work that an agency gives to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position. 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.” Id. at p. 1359

Further, the Court went on to state that the term “vacant position” means “something that is definite and already in existence rather than an unclassified set of duties devised to meet the needs of a particular employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id. at 1360.

Remember: if you have a medical condition such that you can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of your job, your Agency can certainly give you a set of duties to keep you in that position, and if you can do those duties, and like the type of work provided, that is great. However, if and when a new supervisor comes he, that supervisor can negate such an ad hoc set of duties, and declare that all employees must henceforth be able to do all of the duties of the official position description. That is why an ad hoc set of duties does not constitute an “accommodation” under the law — because what is assigned “ad hoc” can also be taken away “ad hoc”.

Unless a Federal Employee is legally accommodated, he or she has the option of filing for disability retirement. Don’t be fooled by an Agency who says, “Don’t worry; we’ll reduce your workload and let you work a light-duty position.” That “light-duty” position will not necessarily be permanent, especially when the next Supervisor comes along.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney