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

OPM Disability Retirement: Thank the Medical Professionals

If not for the doctors, disability retirement would obviously not be a possibility.  Of course, one may make the self-evident statement that being supportive of a Federal Disability Retirement application is simply part of a doctor’s job; and, to some extent, that would be true.  Doctors should indeed be willing to write up supportive medical narrative reports for their patients.

Nevertheless, it is because of the doctor, the effort expended, the willingness to testify at a Merit Systems Protection Board Hearing, that the Office of Personnel Management even listens, or reverses a prior denial, and grants a disability retirement application.  Especially when a case gets denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, it becomes crucial to have the cooperation of the treating doctor to testify in an MSPB Hearing.

This is normally done by telephone, thereby making it a minimal imposition upon the doctor’s time.  Indeed, I often only take a total of 30 minutes of the doctor’s time, including preparation and actual testimony, for an MSPB Hearing.  But the very fact that the doctor is willing to testify — to speak to the Administrative Judge directly to give his or her medical opinion — is often enough to convince OPM to change course, and grant the disability retirement benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial II

It is important to always “define”, “corner”, and “circumscribe” any denial from the Office of Personnel Management.  If you do not, then what happens at the next level is that it becomes a “de novo” process.  Now, one might argue that all disability retirement appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board are de novo, anyway.  That is true enough — meaning, that all of the evidence is looked at “anew” and without prejudice from any previous finding by the Office of Personnel Management. 

Yet, there is the “legal” definition of de novo, and the practical effect of de novo; often, the Administrative Judge at the MSPB will, at a PreHearing Conference, turn to OPM and say, Listen, OPM, it seems that the only reason why it was initially denied was because of X, Y & Z; the applicant certainly answered X & Y in his/her reconsideration answer; is the only thing you are looking for is Z?  What this does is to narrow the issue.  Often, to save time, face, aggravation and other things, OPM will concede the narrowing of such issues, and this is true if you respond to their administrative queries by defining what they are asking for, then providing it to them, then showing how it has been provided to them, so that they are “cornered”.  Thereafter, if it gets denied and it needs to go to the MSPB, the Hearing can then proceed with a narrower, streamlined and limited number of issues to prove.  Again, the reason why it is important to define what it is that OPM is asking for, is not only for the “present” case, but in preparation for the potential “future” case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial I

On those occasions when an OPM denial specifically (and correctly) identifies and asserts deficiencies in a disability retirement application, it is important to have a targeted response in addressing the denial.  The reason for such a targeted approach is for two primary reasons:  (1)  One should always address the alleged specific basis of OPM’s denial of a Federal disability retirement application, and (2) By specifically addressing and answering OPM’s specific basis for the denial, if the Office of Personnel Management denies the application a second time, and it is therefore appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is important to view the entire case of OPM as “unreasonable”.

In other words, it is important at the outset to “prejudice” the Administrative Judge as to the unreasonableness of the Office of Personnel Management. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this — because the “prejudice” which the Judge may perceive is in fact based upon the truth of the matter:  OPM is indeed being unreasonable, and it is important for the Administrative Judge to see such unreasonableness.  It is important to be able to say to the Judge, Your Honor, do you see how we answered the basis of the denial — and yet, even after specifically addressing the basis of the denial, OPM still denied it?  What else can we do?  It is always important to prepare each step of the case not only for the “present” case, but also for the potential “next” case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: More on the MSPB Stage

While I believe that an attorney versed in the Federal Disability Retirement process can be helpful at all stages of the process, at the Third Stage — the Merit Systems Protection Board stage — the input, assistance, and representation of an experienced attorney can be invaluable.  This is essentially the “last” stage of the three-stage process.  Of course, there are two additional stages, but both concern an appeal — in the event that the Administrative Judge rules against the disability retirement applicant at the MSPB.

During the process at the MSPB, the Appellant will have what is called a “Prehearing Conference”.  At such a conference (held over the telephone), the Judge will go over with both parties (the applicant and the OPM representative), certain basic essentials about the law, to include the standard of proof, witness list, preliminary legal matters, etc.  What is important at such a Prehearing Conference is to carefully listen to the Judge.  As each Judge is human, and thus different, it is important to listen and carefully be attentive to what the Judge is looking for.  If more medical documentation is needed, exactly what is the Judge looking for?  If there is a concern about a certain legal issue — say, the issue of accommodation — what exactly is the Judge concerned about?  By being attentive to the questions of the Judge, and fashioning the Hearing to address those concerns, the applicant greatly enhances his or her chances of winning at this crucial stage of the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Merit Systems Protection Board

An appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a Federal Disability Retirement case means that the disability retirement application has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management:  at the initial application stage, then at the Reconsideration Stage.  This is often considered to be the third and last try — of convincing an administrative judge (an “AJ”) that you are entitled and eligible for disability retirement.  There are, of course, two additional stages — an appeal to the Full Board and to the Federal Circuit Court — but such avenues present only the right to reverse a decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board, and no new evidence can be presented.

Thus, one might consider the Merit Systems Protection Board as the “last stop” in the administrative process.  Do not think, however, that the process must necessarily be won before the Administrative Judge in a hearing — much work and persuasive argumentation should be made to the OPM representative who is handling the case at this MSPB Stage.  The OPM representative at the Third Stage of the process is usually an attorney; they are competent; they are versed in the case-law — and thus open to be persuaded by legal argumentation.  While the administrative stages (the Initial Stage and the Reconsideration Stage) involved OPM representatives who are non-attorneys, the MSPB Stage involves seasoned attorneys who present an opportunity for persuasion and argumentation, and thus a golden opportunity to convince OPM to reverse their own decision before coming to a Hearing.  Such an opportunity should never be missed, and every effort should be made by the applicant’s attorney to have multiple contacts with the OPM representative prior to the date of the Hearing.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS disability retirement: Beyond the MSPB

Not all cases that should be won, are won. No one can win 100% of the time; think about it — even the best Major League Baseball players strike out at least 2 out of every 3 at-bats. Most strike out every 3 out of 4 times. Fortunately, I am able to pass through a high percentage of my clients at Stages 1 or 2 of the Disability Retirement process, and that is how it should be.

Every now and again, however, a case must go to the Merit Systems Protection Board; and out of the small number that must get to that point, an even smaller number goes before an Administrative Judge who is clearly anti-employee, and ignores the law and sides with the Office of Personnel Management. Fortunately, most MSPB judges are fair and understand that disability retirement laws favor, for the most part, approval of disability retirement benefits. In those instances where, for whatever reason, a case has been denied at Stages 1 & 2, and the MSPB Judge completely ignores the strong and unequivocal testimony of the doctor, then there is still a good shot at winning the case at the 4th level — a Petition for Full Review.

Such a Stage must be approached by pointing out the legal deficiencies and, indeed, the Hearing Judge’s complete mis-application of the law. It must be done delicately and respectfully, however, because you are essentially asking that the Full Board (a panel of 3 Administrative Judges) reverse one of the Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board — to declare that the Administrative Judge “erred” in applying the law. It is possible to do — but it must be done with care, respect, and technical expertise.

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