CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Legal Arguments

Federal employee attorneys create and manufacture a parallel universe of statutory interpretation, legal argumentation, case-law citations, and extrapolations from esoteric provisions in arguing the “finer points” of law.  Thus, it is a temptation for the lay person — the “non-lawyer” — to attempt to borrow from cases and take a stab at citing case-law and statutory authority in trying to garner support for his or her Federal Disability Retirement application.

In taking on a case at the Reconsideration Stage or the Merit Systems Protection Board, I have the opportunity to read some of the “legal arguments” which non-lawyers have attempted to make.  While many such arguments are valid, some (i.e., too many) mis-cite the law, and often fail to understand and proffer the substantive import of what the cases are saying.  On top of it all, I suspect that the Office of Personnel Management gets a bit annoyed when a non-lawyer applicant attempts to preach the law to another non-lawyer OPM Representative.

A word to the wise:  let lawyers entertain themselves in the parallel universe of the law; let the doctors render their medical opinions; let the non-lawyers make the best arguments possible, in simple language.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: When to File

I still get calls by people who state that (A) they are waiting for a year before they are going to file for FERS or CSRS disability retirement, (B)  It hasn’t been a year since they have been on LWOP, but it almost will be, or (C) They are waiting to be terminated so that their year will begin.  Quiz:  Which of the above (A, B or C) is the correct basis upon which to decide to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?  Answer:  None of the Above.

Since OPM disability retirement can take anywhere from 6 – 8, sometimes 10 months to get (beginning the time-sequence from the time a doctor is contacted to provide a medical report, to putting the entire packet together, to getting it to the Agency Human Resources Personnel, to getting it to Boyers, PA, to getting it to Washington, D.C., to getting an initial approval, etc.), it is:  A.  Not a good idea to “wait a year” because there is no reason to wait; B. You don’t need to wait a year on LWOP to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and:  C.  You don’t need to get terminated, or separated from Federal Service, in order to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Let me re-emphasize:  The “1-year rule” has to do with the following:  A.  You have one (1) year from the date you are separated from Federal Service to file for disability retirement — but you can file at any time, whether separated or not, as long as it is not after 1 year after being separated from service.  B. Your medical condition must be expected to last for a minimum of 12 months — but your treating doctor should be able to tell quite easily whether or not the medical condition for which you are being treated will last that long — normally within a couple of months of treatment.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

August 13th, 2009

Patience During the FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement Process

It is now post-Labor Day Weekend. Summer is essentially over. The Office of Personnel Management will be back in “full force”. The inclination will be to call up OPM and impatiently — imprudently — demand that one’s disability retirement application be reviewed, because it has been sitting on Mr or Ms. X’s desk for the last 90 days. Be cautious of what you request, or demand — because you may get your wish, but with an outcome you do not desire — a denial. I often remark to my clients that if patience is a virtue, then Federal and Postal Workers must be the most virtuous people in the world, because you are the ones who must be most patient — during the years of service you have given, during the process of dealing with a demanding public, and finally, during the process when you need the Federal Government to act quickly — the disability retirement process. Be patient; thereby, be virtuous. Unfortunately, OPM does not have a statutory mandate during the administrative process. If you must call OPM, be courteous in your inquiry, and inquire only if necessary.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: What It Means to Have the “Burden of Proof”

Remember that the applicant who is requesting disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management always has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she is entitled and eligible for disability retirement benefits.  Even if the Agency proposes and effectuates a removal based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (thereby invoking the “Bruner Presumption”); nevertheless, the burden of persuasion always remains with the applicant.

Never assume anything; yes, the Bruner Presumption is nice to have, but don’t ever rely upon it to have your disability retirement benefits handed to you, because it won’t be.  The Bruner Presumption “can be rebutted if adequate evidence is identified in the record to establish that the appellant actually is not entitled to disability retirement; even with the rebuttable presumption, the appellant retains the burden of persuasion at all times to establish his entitlement to disability retirement” (See Morton v. Office of Personnel Management, 88 M.S.P.R. 691 (2001). Remember:  you always have the burden to prove your entitlement to disability retirement benefits; you must prove it; you must work tirelessly to show it.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The “nexus” between the Reconsideration Stage and the Merit Systems Protection Board

It is an accepted fact that there is a “psychological” aspect to almost everything in life, and this is no less true in the field of disability retirement law.  The “psychological” aspect is the nexus, or bridge, from the Reconsideration Stage to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  From OPM’s viewpoint, this is the last chance to make a decision on a case, before it is taken out of the hands — and therefore “control” — of the Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, OPM wants to be able to “justify” that its decision was reasonable, and legally-based and legally sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of an Administrative Judge.   From the Applicant’s viewpoint, it is a chance to show that OPM was unreasonable for not approving the case.

While it is true that all cases which come before the MSPB are heard de novo (meaning, anew, without regard to prior decisions by OPM), OPM nevertheless never wants to be viewed as ignoring the law and appearing unreasonable, and the Applicant wants OPM to appear unreasonable in the face of the medical evidence already provided.  This is the psychology behind trying to convince OPM to approve a case at the Reconsideration Stage.  Thus, at the Reconsideration Stage, it is important to cite applicable law to OPM, to corner them into a position of appearing unreasonable if the disability retirement application is denied.  On the other hand, the reasonings and underpinning of foundational bases provided in Reconsideration Decisions are often far more superior and accurate than those handed down at the Initial Stage.  In any event, always remember that there is a “psychological” aspect to everything, and it is the duty of an attorney to identify it, use it to the best advantage possible, and cite the appropriate law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Purpose of Case Law Citation

Is it necessary for a Federal Disability Retirement Applicant to cite relevant case-laws and statutory authority when filing for disability retirement? Or, should the medical evidence be sufficient? Certainly, there is no statutory requirement that “the law” be referenced when filing for disability retirement. And, further, it is normally not a good idea for a non-lawyer Federal or Postal employee to refer to case-law or relevant statutory authority, if only because non-lawyers often mis-state the law, or misinterpret relevant case-law authority.

The primary purpose why I refer to, and cite relevant statutory authority and case law, even at the initial administrative stage of filing for disability retirement on behalf of a Federal or Postal employee (normally, I will prepare a lengthy legal memorandum for each case), is because I want to preempt any mis-statement of law to the benefits specialist reviewing the application packet. It is important at each stage of the process to point out the relevant law, the applicable case-law, the judicial opinions which have addressed the multiple issues which can deter or potentially derail a disability retirement application. While the benefits specialist at the Initial Stage of the process may not be fully aware of the applicable laws, it is the job of the Attorney to point out the law, and demand that the Office of Personnel Management conform to the relevant, current judicial constraints which should be adhered to.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal OPM Disability Retirement: Notifying the Agency

Fervent loyalty by the Federal and Postal Employee to want to work for as long as possible, and to do the best job possible, is often taken for granted; what is not as common, however, is a “bilateral loyalty” — meaning, loyalty shown by the Agency back to the Federal or Postal employee, especially when such loyalty is needed, during the long process of filing for, and obtaining, disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management.

In representing a client, I am often asked whether or not the Agency should be notified of our intentions immediately, and my response always is: It depends.  If there is a strong and positive relationship between the employee and supervisor, where there are strong indicators that the Agency will be supportive during the lengthy process, then I will often advise informing them fairly quickly.

More often, however, the Agency has had a long history of acting in a “less than sympathetic” manner — and that is in most cases.  In such cases, I normally advise to wait until the disability retirement packet has been prepared and finalized, and it is ready to be submitted to the Personnel or District H.R. Office.

Each case must be looked at independently, and there are never any easy answers.  Agencies are comprised of individuals; individuals are complex beings, with the potential for compassion and empathy, but just as well with a potential for cold disregard for the plight of an individual. So long as Agencies are comprised of individuals, Agencies themselves act as individuals, and each case must be viewed in that light.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Additional Issues Concerning Resignation

An Agency has a legitimate concern with respect to the work that is not being performed while a person is either out on sick leave, or on leave without pay as a result of a medical condition.

On the other hand, Federal and Postal employees who have worked for a sufficient amount of time to be eligible for disability retirement benefits (18 months for FERS employees; 5 years for CSRS employees) have a legitimate expectation of bilateral loyalty — meaning that, inasmuch as the employee has been loyal in the performance of his or her job to the Agency, there is a reasonable expectation that the Agency will be loyal during times of medical hardship, and treat the employee with empathy and compassion.

At some point, greater friction begins to build as the time-frame keeps expanding; the Agency wants the employee back at work, or have the position filled. During the “friction” time, the employee has the leverage to have the Agency propose an administrative, non-adversarial removal based upon the medical inability of the employee to perform his or her duties. It is up to the attorney to persuade the Agency that the goal of the employee runs in the same goal-oriented direction as the Agency: the Agency wants the position; the employee wants disability retirement; both have a common end in mind — vacancy of the position so that the work of the Agency can be accomplished. On the other hand, resignation for the employee gives the employee nothing other than separation from the Agency; it gives the Agency everything it desires.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire