OPM Disability Retirement: The Perspective from the Office of Personnel Management

In effective argumentation, persuasion, written memoranda, oral presentation, and the entire spectrum of attempting to convince the “other side” of the validity, force, appropriateness, and viability of any administrative or legal filing of any nature, it is often a useful tool to attempt to view an issue from that “other” perspective.

Remember that, in filing a Federal disability retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is good to consider the fact that the OPM representative who will be reviewing your particular application, merely sees your application as one among hundreds of files assigned to him or her.  With that in mind, the essential question becomes: How can my particular application, as one among many, be reviewed in such a way that it “stands apart” so that it will be quickly approved? If you ask that question, or any variation of such a question, then you may be taking a wrong approach.

Remember that filing for disability retirement under FERS or CSRS is not like applying for a job; you are not filing a resume that needs to stand out; rather, it is often best if your particular application is nothing more than a “run of the mill” application — with strong, unequivocal and irrefutable medical evidence, along with strong legal arguments to support your case.

Yes, of course your Applicant’s Statement of Disability should explicitly describe the human condition of medical disablement; yes, the “nexus” between your medical condition and your job should be carefully constructed; but no, your application should not necessarily “stand out” as uniquely different — for such an application will often be viewed as “suspicious” and “over-stated”, and may well lead to not just a first viewing, but a re-viewing, and a possible denial

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Actions, Part I

Can adverse agency actions to terminate a Federal employee impact a potential disability retirement application?  The short answer is “yes”, but the longer answer would have to consider multiple factors:  what is the underlying basis of the adverse action?  Does a person’s medical conditions (often psychiatric, cognitive dysfunctions impacting upon less than stellar performance ratings, or perhaps impacting upon the essential elements of one’s job in other ways) explain, in whole or in part, the “adverse” nature of the action?

Also, has there been a “paper trail” established with respect to informing the Agency of medical conditions, such that it can “explain” — again, in whole or in part — the apparent basis of the adverse action?  Is the Agency open to negotiating a material change in the proposed removal — i.e., from one which is adversarial (and therefore would be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board) to one based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (with a stipulation that no appeal will be filed, thereby saving the Agency’s time, resource, and personnel).

It is important to “get involved” in the process of any contemplated Agency action — early.  If the Agency puts an employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), it is time — in fact, overdue — to become active in the future plans for filing a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Long View

What I find when individuals have attempted to file on their own, and get it rejected, is the lack of preparing for the “long view.” Many people hear stories about how “such and such” obtained a disability retirement approval for “far less than the medical conditions I have.”

Fair enough. Those stories may be true (I never engage in a discussion about the validity or truth of such stories; they are what they are — stories); nevertheless, there are multiple factors which are considered at each stage of the process of filing for disability retirement: Who the OPM Specialist is that will be reviewing an application; the subjective application of which criteria are applied in a given case; the personal and professional differences that arise between different bureaucrats at the Office of Personnel Management (no, don’t believe in the story that there is an “objective” methodology of applying the law when reviewing each disability retirement application); and multiple other factors, including whether or not your particular disability retirement packet was reviewed by someone at the Office of Personnel Management when he or she had a “bad day”.

To counter all of the multiple factors over which we don’t have any control, one must always take the “long view” — the view that it may take two denials, and end up before a Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board. At that point, it is important for the Judge to see how well-documented the case has been prepared; that legal arguments have already shown that OPM was unreasonable in its initial decision and its Reconsideration Denial; and how, despite additional attempts at fulfilling OPM’s requests for additional medical documentation, that OPM continued to be unreasonable. By preparing for the “long view”, a disability retirement packet not only has the best chance of getting it approved in the “short run”, but also at the Merit Systems Protection Board.Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Process & the Office of Personnel Management

The “British Rule” is that “good manners will always get you through any and every form of trouble.”  The process at the Office of Personnel Management is a long and arduous one.  When the disability retirement packet finally arrives at Boyers, PA, it will often sit for approximately thirty (30) days, before it is finally assigned a CSA number (for CSRS employees, it will begin with the number “4”; for FERS employees, it will begin with the number “8”).

The Applicant will receive a form letter from OPM in Boyers, PA, informing you that you have been assigned a CSA number, and that it has been forwarded to the OPM office in Washington, D.C.  This is when patience and good manners must come to the fore.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with calling OPM and inquiring about the status of your case.  However, always remember to be courteous; inquire as to the time-frame that the adjudicating disability specialist is expecting; and ask if it would be okay to call periodically, and to let him/her know that if any further documentation is needed, to give you a call — or, if you are represented, to call your attorney.  Whatever you do, do not get angry, and keep it professional — and courteous.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirements: The Office of Personnel Management

I once heard a pastor make a rather unremarkable statement, but profound nevertheless in its simplicity and truth: “Where there are people, there are problems.” To assume that an Agency will make a proper, objective and legally sufficient decision all the time, most of the time, or even more often than not, is probably asking too much. The Office of Personnel Management, as with any Agency, is an entity — a large bureaucracy — made up of “people”. Yes, there are laws governing disability retirement; yes, there are rules, regulations and “criteria” which form the foundational basis for the “decision-making” part of evaluating each disability retirement case; but more profoundly, there are “people” who review, interpret, and apply those rules, regulations, and legal criteria in determining the final outcome: approval or disapproval of a claim.

That is why it is important in “how” a case is presented, as much as “what” it is that is being presented. With people, there are personalities; with personalities, there are variances in how any given OPM person reviews a case and makes a decision, from one to another. Where an attorney can be most helpful, is to “elevate” a case out of being merely one case among many, to making a presentation of a case on three fundamental levels: (1) the seriousness of the medical condition, (2) the legal sufficiency of the disability retirement application, and (3) persuasion by argumentation that it would be a mistake — a misapplication of the legal criteria — to disapprove a disability retirement application. All in all, this comes down to one profound issue: Where there are people, there are problems; and where there are problems, it is often a good idea to make the best presentation possible, at the outset of a disability retirement case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: End of Year

The New Year is upcoming. For those who are anxiously awaiting a decision on their Federal Disability Retirement applications, remember that this is a continuing process. Thus, whether or not the application gets approved or denied prior to the coming New Year, the process of then having the Agency provide the necessary payroll information in order for interim payments to begin, will still take some time. Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management is a bureaucracy. Within each bureacracy, as with all such gigantic entities, there are individuals who are competent in what they do; others, less so. Once a disability retirement application has been approved, the best thing which can be done to expedite payment on an approved claim, is to be persistent (on a daily basis, and some times on an hourly basis); be cordial and professional with each person you speak with, but be firm; get the name, telephone number, and write down any “promises” which an OPM person makes or proposes to make; then get a firm date as to when the promise will be fulfilled. Also, it is helpful, if possible, to get a supervisor’s direct number. Remember, good manners and courtesy will get you a long way; “befriending” an individual will get you even further; and gaining a sympathetic ear will get you the farthest. Be persistent, patient, and a pain-in-the-behind — all at once.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Time to File

A question often asked is, when is it the right time to file for Disability Retirement? Must you wait until one has been disabled for over a year? Do you have to file for Social Security first, before filing for OPM Disability Retirement? Should the Agency be notified at the beginning of the process, or some time later down the road? What is the best time to approach my doctor about getting his or her support for disability retirement? These are all “timing” questions — each important in its own right, as are all such timing questions.

Since the processing from start to finish, to obtain disability retirement benefits, may take 6 – 8, sometimes 10 months, it must be timed financially — is there enough sick leave, annual leave; should donated leave be requested? Once LWOP is taken, should one remain on LWOP throughout the entire process? As to whether one must wait for a year of being “disabled” before one can file — the answer is “no”. So long as the doctor believes that the medical disability will last for at least a year (within reasonable medical probability), one has the proper medical basis to file for disability retirement. As to filing for Social Security, the Office of Personnel Management actually only needs to see the receipt, showing that one has filed for SSD, at the time of approval of the disability retirement application. And how about notifying the Agency? This is a question which should be decided after discussion of several factors, with one’s attorney, who may provide for proper legal advice, the potential consequences of informing the Agency, etc. Ultimately, timing questions are a matter of particular importance — particular to the situation and circumstances of each individual case. With that in mind, it is often a good idea to have the counsel of an experienced attorney in the area of Federal Disability Retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire