Federal Worker Disability Retirement: The Apparent Independence of Each Stage

In some ways, the fact that each “stage” of the process of Federal Disability Retirement is independent from each other, is a “given”.   When a Federal Disability Retirement application is denied at the Initial Stage of the process, then again at the Reconsideration Stage of the process, it is considered a positive part of the administrative process that the Merit Systems Protection Board will evaluate and decide the case “de novo”, or “anew” or “afresh”, without regard to what the Office of Personnel Management stated, decided, affirmed or concluded.

To that extent — to have an independent eye and an evaluation unbiased by prior analysis — is a good thing.  However, when one reads the decision of the Office of Personnel Management at the Initial denial of the application, then again at the Reconsideration denial of the application, it is somewhat disconcerting that neither OPM Representatives relied upon the analysis of the other.  What this allows for, of course, is an independent review by both the Initial Stage of the application and the Reconsideration Stage of the application, and while such independence of review can be seen in a positive light (again, that one OPM Representative is not influenced or biased by the views of the other), more often than not, what happens is that the Reconsideration Stage OPM Representative merely comes up with new and previously unfounded arguments upon which to deny the application a second time.

In short, it is difficult to stabilize the arguments upon which OPM relies, in order to answer and refute them.  That is why the MSPB’s approach of viewing a case de novo is important.  For, by ignoring the malleability of OPM’s reviewing process, one may get an objective and truly independent analysis and evaluation of the case.  Independence is an important component of “fairness”; objectivity is an integral element; and integrity is the filament which holds the law together.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The MSPB Hearing

If you find yourself at the Merit Systems Protection Board trying to prove to an Administrative Judge that your are entitled to Federal Disability Retirements benefits under FERS or CSRS, and you have already filed a Prehearing Statement, and your witnesses have been approved at the Prehearing Conference, and further, you have outlined all of the issues, set forth the legal basis, and proffered the expected testimony, it is then “showtime”.  

It is obviously preferable for an applicant who is filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits to be represented by a Federal Disability Attorney — if possible, from the inception of the process, through the Reconsideration Stage, to the MSPB.  However, if a Federal or Postal employee finds that, for one reason or another, you simply cannot afford an Attorney, then here are three (3) tips if you find that you are before an MSPB Administrative Judge:  (1)  Have a doctor testify, and make sure that the testimony of the doctor is precise and to the point (2) Make sure that what you prove to the Judge correlates with what you said you would prove in your Prehearing Statement, and (3) Be prepared to make objections to any of OPM’s cross-examination questions.  Finally, remember that the point of making an objection during a Hearing is not to necessarily stop the question or answer, but rather, to preserve the point for a possible appeal.  It is ultimately difficult for a non-attorney Federal Disability Retirement applicant to formulate and prepare for an effective Merit Systems Protection Board Hearing, and further, it would be better if the Federal or Postal employee had an attorney (who is well-versed in Federal Disability Retirement law) throughout the entire process; but one must play the hand one is dealt with, and that old adage is true even with a Federal or Postal Disability Retirement case under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement for Federal Workers: The MSPB

The Merit Systems Protection Board is the arena, in a Federal Disability Retirement application, where the issues are taken out of the control of the Office of Personnel Management for an independent review of a Federal or Postal employee’s disability application to obtain the benefit.  In a Federal Disability Retirement application, the Office of Personnel Management is given an opportunity (twice — at the initial stage of the process, then at the Reconsideration Stage) to make the “right” decision (in my view, “right” being an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, at least for my clients).  

If that decision is a denial, at both levels, then the applicant has the right and opportunity to file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  At that level, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Federal or Postal employee must prove that he or she meets the criteria, under the law, to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Some de minimus extent of discovery is engaged in; a Prehearing Statement defining the issues and identifying the proposed list of witnesses must be prepared; and, finally, a Hearing is set.  It is the forum in which someone other than OPM will have a fresh opportunity to review the case, and this is a good thing.  Otherwise, only the fox would be guarding the hen house, and under that scenario, there would be very few hens left alive, if any.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Employee Medical Retirement: Preparing for an MSPB Hearing

There is a singular focus when preparing for a Hearing at the Merit Systems Protection Board:  that of persuading and convincing an Administrative Judge that you have proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that you are entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Of course, as I have often pointed out in the past, the full and complete preparation for an MSPB Hearing should have come about throughout the first two stages of the process — in the initial application for Federal Disability Retirement, and in responding to the Office of Personnel Management at the Reconsideration Stage of the process.  The fact that the Office of Personnel Management denied a case twice does not mean that the Applicant or his/her attorney did anything “wrong”; rather, it merely means that the Office of Personnel Management was wrong twice over.  Beyond the singular focus upon the MSPB Administrative Judge, there must be a multiple focus before the actual day of the Hearing:  Prepare, prepare, and prepare.  That means:  Go through the Agency records with a fine-toothed comb; prepare by anticipating any cross-examination questions which OPM may have; prepare the witnesses; prepare the closing argument.  Preparation is the key to every litigation, and a Hearing before the MSPB Administrative Judge is no different.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Process at the MSPB

When a FERS or CSRS disability retirement application has made its way in the “process” to the “Third Stage” — the Merit Systems Protection Board — then I (as an attorney) must be unequivocal in my recommendation:  You need an attorney.  I believe that individuals who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits should retain a competent attorney at every stage of the process, but there are always considerations of financial ability, and perhaps other considerations, which prevent someone from hiring an attorney at the initial stages of the process. 

At the MSPB level, however, it is important for two (2) reasons (there are many, many other reasons as well, but for brevity’s sake, I choose the main reasons):  1.  It is extremely important to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you meet the eligibility requirements, to an Administrative Judge, who is both a lawyer and a Judge, and therefore has the knowledge and background to make a reasoned assessment of the evidence presented, and 2.  You must be able to present the case in such a way that, if the Administrative Judge makes an error in his or her decision, you are prepared to appeal the case to the next level.  In order to be able to appeal the case to the next level, you must know the law, be able to present your evidence at the MSPB in accordance with the law, and therefore be able to argue that a decision rendered against you is in violation of the law.  In order to do this, you need an Attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Denials II

It is, indeed, frustrating when a governmental agency makes life-impacting decisions which seem to be spurious and capricious. A review of a disability retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is supposed to be thorough, with sound reasoning and a fair application of the law. And, in all fairness, the majority of cases appear to meet that standard. It may well be, of course, that since all approval letters of disability retirement applications are standard templates, with boilerplate language and instructions, and since most of my cases are approved at the first level, the impression left is that OPM does a good job in reviewing the cases.

When a case is disapproved, however, it is often the case that the denial is based upon factors which defy logic, which appear to have little or no rational basis, and which selectively focuses upon a narrow reading of the medical reports and records. Thus, often the OPM Representative will take a statement out of context, and declare that the doctor stated X when a full reading of the medical report shows that the doctor actually stated Y. This is unfortunate, and does not reflect the careful review, analysis, and fair rendering of a decision made by most OPM representatives, but occurs often enough to be of concern. On the bright side, however, is that there is always the ability to take it completely out of the hands of OPM, after a second denial — and allow an administrative judge to review it objectively, at the Merit Systems Protection Board. That is why the MSPB was created and exists — to have a third party, objective body review the decision-making process of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Symptoms Versus Diagnosis

If disability retirement were merely a matter of determining the proper diagnosis of a medical condition, and having a doctor ascribe a percentage rating of disability, then the process of disability retirement would substantively be altered, and perhaps there would be far fewer cases to adjudicate at the Merit Systems Protection Board level. For, if the criteria were that ‘cut and dry’, there would be little for OPM and the applicant & the applicant’s lawyer to argue over. However, it rarely is that ‘cut and dry’ — because the major battle is rarely over the diagnosis; it is rarely over an issue concerning a percentage ascription of disability; rather, it is over the symptoms manifested, the significance of such symptoms upon the type of work one does, and in the impact such symptoms have upon the essential elements of one’s job.

That is why descriptive terms are important in disability retirement law. It is not so important ‘what it is’, as opposed to ‘how it is characterized’. From this perspective, it is important for a disability retirement attorney to be more of a poet than to be cold and analytical — although, the best approach would be to have a little bit of both. Remember to always know the context — the applicant will not be standing in front of an OPM representative showing how terrible the applicant’s medical condition is; there will be no visual presentation; everything is based upon a narrative — the applicant’s statement, the medical documentation, the legal memorandum of the attorney, etc. Thus, it is all-important for the attorney who represents a disability retirement applicant to have a good command of the English language.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire