Early Medical Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: Harm of Linguistic Impurities

The integrity of the law is kept intact by the careful scrutiny of compliance, via oversight by guardians whose responsibility it is to maintain, challenge and question the diversionary attempt, however minor and in what seemingly inconsequential modalities, such imperceptible excursions into areas outside of the linguistic purity of the law, regulations and case-law interpretation when attempted.

In Federal Disability Retirement law, it is the Federal Agency itself — the U.S. Office of Personnel Management — which often must be kept “in check”.  For, it is precisely those “allowances” of language which provides for licenses not otherwise granted which, if left unchallenged, will continue to repetitively reappear in subsequent decisions rendered for future Federal Disability Retirement applicants.

Thus, in a Federal Disability Retirement denial, it may be that a decision of denial of a Federal Disability Retirement application may state that the medical evidence “does not show that your medical conditions kept you out of the workplace altogether”, or that the diagnostic testing did not establish that the Federal Disability Retirement applicant “had a disabling disease which caused a disablement which incapacitated” the individual — implying, thereby, a standard of medical disability far above and beyond what is necessary for eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Such misstatements must be challenged and refuted; otherwise, the integrity of the law is left soiled and smeared, and future attempts by Federal and Postal Workers may be harmed by the careless allowance of linguistic impurities to surface and fester.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Manufactured Legal Criteria

Even assuming good faith, the application of a manufactured legal criteria can lead to a harm which can be irreversible.  The consequence of a Federal or Postal employee relying upon a mis-stated, non-existent legal criteria can potentially result in simply raising one’s hands in frustration, as a sign of futility, and giving up on the process of attempting to pursue a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.  

David Hume’s philosophical argument concerning causality and the fact that, because there is no “necessary connection” between two objects which meet, which result in one object “causing” the movement or sequential effect of the second object, may be a technically ingenious analysis of an intellectual discourse.  In the “real world”, however, when two objects collide, there are causal consequences.  

Similarly, in a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, when the Office of Personnel Management requires that one submit “objective evidence” to justify the medical doctor’s conclusions of disability, what the Office of Personnel Management is requiring is a “necessary connection” which does not exist in “the law”.  Years of clinical examinations; notations of progressive deterioration; limited flexion and mobility; consistent complaints of pain; the aggregate of such complaints in and of itself constitutes evidence — but of course OPM ignores such evidence as being merely “subjective“.  

Just as Hume’s requirement of a necessary connection violates the pragmatic standards applicable in the “real world”, so OPM’s requirement of “objective medical evidence” betrays the legal criteria in a Federal Disability Retirement application. Fighting the misapplication of a non-existent legal criteria is like denying a negative, however; it can be done, but you must use the law as a sword, and not merely as a shield.

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: The Law

I will be writing an article of greater length on this issue, but suffice it for now that when “the law” works, it works well. A major second case has been decided in favor of the Federal employee — first, it was Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007), and now, Sylvia M. Reilly v. OPM, decided July 15, 2009. Vanieken-Ryals toppled the irrational imposition of a baseless standard by OPM — that there is a distinction to be made between “objective” as opposed to “subjective” evidence concerning medical evidence (example of the absurdity: How do you prove the existence of pain? While an MRI may show a physical condition, you cannot prove that such a physical condition equates to debilitating pain, leaving aside any quantification of pain. Similarly, how do you prove the existence of Major Depression? Anxiety? Panic attacks?).

Now, Reilly v. OPM has toppled another idol of a false standard imposed by OPM: that medical documentation which post-dates separation from Federal Service is near-irrelevant. This has never made sense, for at least 2 reasons: first, since a person is allowed to file for Federal Disability Retirement within 1 year of being separated from service, why would medical documentation dated after the separation be considered irrelevant? Second, medical conditions rarely appear suddenly. Most conditions are progressive and degenerative in nature, and indeed, that is what the Court in Reilly argues. Grant another win for the Federal employee, the law, and the process of law. It makes being a lawyer worthwhile when “the law” works.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirements: Groundless Denials of FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement Applications

One would assume that when a disability retirement application has been reviewed by someone at the Office of Personnel Management, and a decision of denial has been rendered, that such a decision will — at a bare minimum — be based upon a legally sufficient ground. In other words, that the legal criteria asserted in the decision will be correctly delineated.

Unfortunately, that is too often not the case. In fact, many of the legal claims asserted by the Office of Personnel Management have no justification in law, and are exaggerated at best, and a mis-statement of the applicable laws, at worst. But for disability retirement applicants who are unrepresented, the individual may well read the decision, believe what the decision states, and become convinced that the burden is too onerous to overcome, and fail to request reconsideration in the case, discouraged that he or she will never be able to meet the legal burden imposed in the initial denial.

Thus, for instance, when an OPM denial letter states that there was “no evidence showing hallucinations, delusions or other symptoms of psychosis,” and therefore the disability retirement is denied, one might conclude: “Since I don’t have those conditions, I must not be qualified for disability retirement.” Wrong! Or, when OPM says: “There was no evidence of hospitalization or the need for such treatment,” one might become completely discouraged and say, “Oh, disability retirement requires that my medical condition is such that it requires hospitalization in order to qualify, and therefore I cannot qualify“. Wrong! Such overstated and exaggerated claims by the Office of Personnel Management are commonplace, and unnecessarily place a burden upon disability retirement applicants through mis-statements of the law. Never allow an OPM mis-statement of the law to persuade you to abandon your case; instead, seek competent legal counsel to explain what the law of disability retirement really is, and proceed from here.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Decisions of Denial in FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement Case

There are two elements: competency/knowledge, on the one hand, and authority/power on the other. When the two come together, we then have the combination resulting in a reasoned decision. It is indisputable that an Agency has the authority and power to make administrative decisions. On the other hand, if the Agency makes a decision without the proper competency or knowledge, then it can become a problem.

In reviewing a denial letter from the Office of Personnel Management in disability retirement cases, what is most disturbing are the following: First, 90% of the denial letter is based upon a computer template. The references to dates, medical reports & records reviewed, etc., comprise the remainder of the 10%.

Now, that is not to complain that OPM should or must “reinvent the wheel” each time it makes a decision — indeed, the fact that much of the decision is boilerplate, template language is not that disturbing. What is, disturbing, however, is when — under the pretense of competency and knowledge, it makes blatant mis-statements of the law.

Some of the mis-statements are: “The medical documentation does not show that you are totally disabled from performing your job.” There is no requirement under the law that a person needs to be “totally disabled”. Or: “We are unable to make a determination because of the lack of objective medical evidence.” Medical evidence does not need to be “objective” as opposed to a doctor’s reasoned medical opinions. Or: “Fibromyalgia is a condition which waxes and wanes.” OPM is not a medical facility and has no business making medical determinations or declarations.

The authority and power of an Agency must always be used in the context of competency and knowledge, and the Office of Personnel Management must make its decisions based upon the prevailing case laws, statutes and regulations which govern it. It is the job of a disability retirement attorney to point out such misstatements of law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire