CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Standard Forms Do Not Mean “Standard Responses”

The problem with “Standard Forms” is that they often appear to solicit “standard responses”, and in a Federal Disability Retirement case under the Federal Employees Retirement Systems (FERS) or the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, it is often because a Federal or Postal employee/applicant who confronts and begins to fill out SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability, the very “blocked” appearance of the form, and the constricting questions themselves, makes it appear as if a “standard response” is required.  Don’t be fooled.

By way of example, take a “special animal” — that of a Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller who must take a disqualifying medication, loses his or her medical certification from the Flight Surgeon, and thinks that filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is a “slam dunk”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Or, a Customs & Border Patrol Agent who goes out on stress leave, or suffers from chronic back pain.  Are there “standard responses” in filling out an Applicant’s Statement of Disability?  There are certain standard “elements” which should be considered in responding to the questions, but don’t be constricted by an appearance of “standard responses” to a “standard form”.

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: Attorney Representation

I am still often asked about whether or not, or how helpful, legal representation would be in a Federal or Postal Disability Retirement case.  To ask an attorney such a question is often unhelpful, for there is always the question as to how much “self-interest” an attorney has in answering such a question.

What I can state, however, is the following:  Remember that everyone believes that his or her case is a “sure thing” — this is natural, because the very individual who is filing for disability retirement is the one who is suffering from the medical condition, and so it is a very “personal” matter, and a sense of objectivity is difficult to maintain in these matters.

Second, remember that when you hire an attorney, you are not just hiring someone who “knows something” about FERS & CSRS disability retirement; instead, you should be hiring that lawyer for his or her reputation, his knowledge of the administrative & legal process with the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board, and how well he is “thought of” by OPM (i.e., how long has he been practicing in the field of Federal Disability Retirement law, does he know the people at OPM, and more importantly, does OPM know him/her?).

Finally, always keep in mind that, while attorneys can be expensive, you must always do a cost-benefits analysis, and look at the benefit you will be receiving (or not receiving) if you do or do not hire an attorney.  Disability retirement benefits are essentially a means of securing one’s financial future, and as such, the benefit to be secured is important enough to consider hiring 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: Why is mine denied?

There are always multiple (unverified) stories of people who have filed for Federal Disability retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS, based upon what appears to be a “minor” medical condition (at least “minor” in comparison to the medical conditions which were rejected by the Office of Personnel Management per a denial letter), which was approved; yet, you filed a Federal Disability Retirement application based upon multiple major medical conditions, which was denied.  Why me?

Remember that “fairness” is not the criteria in determining the viability of a disability retirement application.

Comparisons of medical conditions with other applicants or co-workers rarely provide any fruitful insight; the point is, the “other guy” got his disability retirement application approved, and you did not.  It may be several factors beyond your control:  Your Supervisor tried to “get back at you” by declaring that all reasonable accommodations were provided; the OPM representative which was assigned to your case was overworked and wanted to clear some of the workload, and yours was one of them; one of your doctors made statements which came perilously close to making your case one of “situational disability”.

Whatever the reasons, you should not worry about factors beyond your control; instead you need to focus upon those factors over which you do have control:  You need to have a strategy on how you will counter the initial denial.

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: When & how to act

When people call me to ask if they need legal representation in filing for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, I try and provide as “objective” an opinion on the matter as possible. I represent hundreds of people in filing for, and obtaining, disability retirement benefits; it is my specialty, and it is how I make a living. At the same time, however, I believe that I can be completely honest in providing guidance as to whether an individual should obtain legal representation, or needs to obtain representation.

For instance, for individuals who have already sent in their disability retirement packets to OPM (via the Agency for those still on the rolls; directly to Boyers, PA for those who have been separated from service for 31 days or more), I normally advise the applicant to wait — wait until a decision has been rendered, and hopefully the individual will not have to expend the funds for attorneys fees, and an approval will be in the mail. On the other hand, every now and then, an applicant who is waiting for a decision from the Office of Personnel Management, will describe the content and substantive materials comprising the disability retirement packet, and certain statements — during a telephone consultation with me — concerning what is stated in the applicant’s Statement of Disability, will give rise to concern, and in those instances, it may be wise to either withdraw the application, or immediately take steps to supplement the disability retirement packet.

Each FERS or CSRS disability retirement packet is unique, because each individual & individual’s medical condition is unique. That’s what makes the practice of law in the field of representing Federal and Postal disability retirement applicants so interesting, and so professionally satisfying.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement Cases before an MSPB Judge

When putting on a disability retirement case under FERS or CSRS before the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is essential that an applicant (if unrepresented) and the attorney (if represented, the applicant need not participate in any Prehearing Conference, but will obviously encounter the Judge during the Telephone Hearing) listens to the Administrative Judge during any Pre-Hearing Conference.

Many Administrative Judges are probably willing to help the appellant.  While judges are unable to render legal advice or to actually lend counsel to the appellant, many administrative judges go out of their way to clearly outline for the Appellant the tools needed to persuade and win the case. Administrative Judges, for the most part, actually want to root for the appellant, and want you to put on a good case to persuade them to rule in your favor. In my opinion, an appellant should have an attorney at the Merit Systems Protection Board.  At a Prehearing Conference, I listen carefully at any special concerns or comments which an Administrative Judge may make — because such concerns are often the key to winning the case for my client. Remember — judges are human; they want to root for the underdog; deep inside they want you to win your case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Supervisors & Their Responsibility

Agency Supervisors possess powers which can be easily misused.  As such, the Supervisor who must fill out a Supervisor’s Statement — Standard Form 3112B — for the disability retirement applicant, must do so with care, integrity, and a sense of reasoned perspective and fairness.  “But I’m only telling the truth of what I believe,” is often the justification of a Supervisor who deliberately inserts damaging, self-serving and derogatory remarks on the Supervisor’s Statement. But such “truth” goes beyond the proper role of a Supervisor.

Indeed, it is often helpful to discuss the content of intended remarks and statements with the Federal or Postal employee first. Such consultation provides a true and balanced opportunity — a field of fairness and a reasoned perspective — to ensure that a Supervisor is indeed being fair, balanced, and neutral, and not allowing for any personal “feelings” of acrimony or animosity to dilute and pollute a fair appraisal of an employee’s performance, conduct, and impact upon the Agency’s purpose, mission, and goals intended and accomplished.

For, ultimately, a Supervisor’s Statement is not about what a Supervisor’s “belief” is; it is not about whether the Supervisor likes or dislikes a Federal or Postal employee; rather, it is supposed to be a balanced, objective perspective delineating the impact of a Federal or Postal employee’s performance or conduct, relative to his or her medical condition and the ability of that employee to perform the essential elements of a job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire