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

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

OPM Disability Retirement: When it Gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

For whatever reason, a certain percentage of cases reach the third level in the process of applying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits:  The Merit Systems Protection Board.  If an individual is unrepresented at this level, the identical problem as that which occurs in any courtroom presents itself:  an attorney representing an individual provides an appearance of “objectivity” to the administrative judge; the advocacy on behalf of a disability retirement applicant has greater credibility, the arguments made on his/her behalf are now greater efficacy and weight, merely because the person arguing (the attorney) and the person for whom the arguments are made (the disability applicant), are not one and the same.

Whether fair or not, it is important that a disability retirement applicant obtain representation at this level, because Administrative Judges are more likely to listen to the arguments made by an attorney, precisely because the Attorney does not — other than the professional reputation of winning or losing the case — have a “personal” vested interest in the case itself.  As such, the arguments of an attorney have an appearance of objectivity, and it is that weight of objectivity which may be the deciding factor as to whether the applicant will get the disability retirement annuity, or not.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: The Role of the Attorney

Obviously, as with all areas of law, the primary role of an attorney in representing a Federal disability retirement applicant (aside from the obvious role of obtaining the disability retirement annuity), is to render useful and effective advice in the representation of the Applicant’s submission before the Office of Personnel Management.

Often, however, in the process of performing such a role, engagement with the Federal or Postal employee’s Agency and supervisor is inevitable and necessary. The timing of such an engagement is crucial. Attorneys need to be careful that his or her representation is not only rendering good advice; further, it needs to be effective.

As hard as it is for an attorney to admit, sometimes it is better for a Federal Disability attorney to take a “back-seat” role, and quietly advise the client but allow the client to deal with the Agency. Indeed, an Agency will often begin to act irrationally, unnecessarily confrontationally, and further, complicate matters by involving their Agency counsel in the matter. In such a simple matter as informing the Agency that the employee is in the process of preparing a disability retirement application — sometimes it is better for the employee to bring it up with his or her supervisor, without the direct involvement of the attorney, especially if the Federal employee has a good working relationship with the Supervisor. Part of the job of the Attorney is to render good advice — and that sometimes means, taking a back seat.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Merit Systems Protection Board: A Different Animal

When an individual has attempted to obtain disability retirement under FERS or CSRS on his/her own, but has failed at both the initial stage as well as the Reconsideration Stage, while it is true that a Hearing before an administrative judge at the MSPB is to be heard de novo (meaning, heard “anew” and where new evidence may be submitted), it is always important to try and introduce something new above and beyond medical reports and records.

This is why I normally insist upon having at least one doctor testify over the telephone. That way, everything can be presented and exposed: the Judge is able to hear first-hand the medical assessment and opinion of the treating doctor, and allow the doctor to be subjected to as much cross-examination as OPM’s representative wants.

This latter aspect is important for the administrative judge to see — that we (the applicant and the attorney) have nothing to hide; the opinion of the doctor is unequivocal and informed, and none of OPM’s questions can shake that opinion. This takes careful preparation and a systematic, thoughtful series of questions and answers between the attorney and the doctor, to meet each of the legal criteria demanded for approval of a disability retirement claim.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire