CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Doctor’s Opinion

As an attorney who represents Federal and Postal employees to “obtain” Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it is important to make distinctions within the process of securing the Federal benefit:  while it is important to solicit and secure the medical opinion of the treating doctor, the resistance from such doctors — if in fact there is any resistance at all — most often comes about because the doctor doesn’t understand the “process”. 

Doctors are medical providers.  They are in the practice of medicine because they believe in applying the science of medicine to help their patients get better.  Helping someone obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS is not part of “practicing medicine”.  Yet, in many ways, it is.  It is part of practicing medicine because, to allow the patient to continue to work in a job which he or she cannot perform, will only exacerbate and worsen the medical condition. 

Further, doctors never like to “disable” their patients.  To counter this medical opinion, it is important to clearly inform the doctor what the process of Federal disability retirement is and is not.  It is the job of the attorney hired to represent a Federal or Postal worker to obtain disability retirement benefits, to clearly and cogently explain the entire process to the treating doctor.  That is what I do, at the very start, in representing my clients.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Beware the Layman

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Pre and Post

Issues revolving around the initial application stage, during the application stage, and after the approval, are often of equal importance.  This is because the approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS will ensure the financial and economic survival and viability of the Federal or Postal employee.  Thus, in the pre-approval stage of the process, it is often good to engage in some future planning:  How hard will I fight for Social Security Disability?  Will I be getting a part-time job to supplement my income?  Where will I live?  During the process of obtaining disability retirement, there is the long wait, and the ability to remain financially afloat while receiving little or no financial support.  Post-approval, there are issues of the potential for receiving a Medical Questionnaire from the Office of Personnel Management.  Whether the current doctor will continue to be supportive, or will I move and need to find another doctor?  Because getting Federal disability retirement benefits is a life-long process, it is important to get sound legal advice from a competent attorney throughout the process — pre, during, and post process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Social Security Disability

Under the rules concerning FERS disability retirement applications, one must file for Social Security Disability.  As most people already know, there is an interaction/offset between Social Security Disability benefits and FERS disability benefits, if both are approved (100% offset in the first year of annuity, 60% offset every year thereafter).  One would assume (dangerously, as it turns out), that if an application for Social Security disability is approved, that it would automatically render an approval under FERS disability retirement a “sure” thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The fact that Social Security has a higher standard of proof — where one must be considered “totally disable” as opposed to (under the legal standards for FERS) “disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”) — one would think that, legally and logically, if you have met the higher legal standard of proof, then the lesser standard would have been automatically met.  Unfortunately, because the two standards are applied in different, independent agencies, the fact that Social Security Disability benefits are awarded is not a guarantee that the FERS disability retirement application will automatically be granted.  However, there is clear case-law stating that OPM must consider the approval by SSD as one factor among many in the consideration of FERS disability retirement applications.  It is important to cite such cases in support of your application for FERS disability retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Summer Waiting

I have written previously about the long and arduous waiting process & period in trying to obtain CSRS & FERS Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management. Remember that, in your calculation in attempting to survive financially, economically, emotionally, medically, physically, mentally — and in all other ways, keep in mind that the summer months from July to August often represent a “dead zone” when many Federal employees take time off for vacation, time for family, and time for relaxation.  While it is understandable that this makes the Federal disability retirement applicant nervous and anxious to be placed “on hold” when such an important decision may be held in abeyance, it is simply a reality which must be taken into account.  Don’t get frustrated; be patient.  The summer months will come and go, and the important point is to keep looking forward to the future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Law

I will be writing an article of greater length on this issue, but suffice it for now that when “the law” works, it works well. A major second case has been decided in favor of the Federal employee — first, it was Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007), and now, Sylvia M. Reilly v. OPM, decided July 15, 2009. Vanieken-Ryals toppled the irrational imposition of a baseless standard by OPM — that there is a distinction to be made between “objective” as opposed to “subjective” evidence concerning medical evidence (example of the absurdity: How do you prove the existence of pain? While an MRI may show a physical condition, you cannot prove that such a physical condition equates to debilitating pain, leaving aside any quantification of pain. Similarly, how do you prove the existence of Major Depression? Anxiety? Panic attacks?).

Now, Reilly v. OPM has toppled another idol of a false standard imposed by OPM: that medical documentation which post-dates separation from Federal Service is near-irrelevant. This has never made sense, for at least 2 reasons: first, since a person is allowed to file for Federal Disability Retirement within 1 year of being separated from service, why would medical documentation dated after the separation be considered irrelevant? Second, medical conditions rarely appear suddenly. Most conditions are progressive and degenerative in nature, and indeed, that is what the Court in Reilly argues. Grant another win for the Federal employee, the law, and the process of law. It makes being a lawyer worthwhile when “the law” works.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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