CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Don’t Confuse the Standards

People who call me for advice, who are potential candidates as clients for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, often interchangeably use terms which apply to different standards:  standards of total disability as opposed to a medical disability which impacts one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; whether a medical condition is an “accepted” disability (a concept which is often used in Social Security disability cases); whether a person can file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits even though he “hasn’t reached MMI” (“Maximum Medical Improvement”) — which is language encompassing a concept familiar to OWCP/DOL (Worker’s Comp) cases; or, on a different level, the statement that an agency has been “accommodating” an employee by allowing him/her to take sick leave, Leave Without Pay, or to “not have to travel as much” — mistakenly or loosely using the term “accommodation”, when in fact such agency actions do not constitute a legally viable accommodation, as that term is used in Federal Disability Retirement laws. 

It is the job of the attorney to correct, clarify, and otherwise explain the proper terminology and precise application of concepts in Federal Disability Retirement cases.  It is not surprising that people who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS use the various terms in error, or mix terms unknowingly — for there is alot of misinformation “out there”; it is the job of an Attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law to clarify such confusions.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The “Process” at the Reconsideration Stage

It is important to understand that the “process” of filing for Federal Disability Retirement, when it comes to the Second, or “Reconsideration” Stage, encompasses two factual prisms:  (1)  The application has now been denied (obviously, and for whatever reason — most likely because of “insufficient medical evidence”) and (2) it is the stage in the process prior to an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. 

This dual prism of the stage, while self-evident, is important to keep in mind, because it requires a duality of duties:  A.  It requires (for the Disability Retirement Applicant) a duty to show something beyond what has already been shown, while B.  It requires the Office of Personnel Management to be careful in this “process” of review, because if OPM makes a mistake at this stage, then the likelihood is great that they will be required to expend their limited resources to defend a disability retirement case before an Administrative Judge, and if it becomes obvious that the case should have been decided favorably at the Second Stage, it reflects negatively upon the Agency.  OPM is an agency made up of people (obviously); as such, just as “people” don’t like to look foolish, OPM as an Agency made up of people, does not like to look “badly” or “foolish”.  This duality of factual prisms is important to understand when entering into the Second, Reconsideration Stage of the “process”.

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: Viewing the Office of Personnel Management

Agencies are “like” people; they are “organic” organizations (a redundancy?), and as a corporate-like entity, they respond and react as people do:  cerebrally, emotionally, reactively, angrily, etc.  If one views an agency in this way — treating the entity as one would a person — then you will often get the same or similar results as when dealing with your brother, a spouse, or a neighbor.  And, indeed, as a logical approach, this only makes sense, because agencies and organizations are made up of people.

Thus, when filing an application for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it is often important to think of “incentives” in approaching the Office of Personnel Management, to make every effort to have a carrot/stick approach in filing a disability retirement application.  The “stick” part of it, of course, is the law — the threat of making sure that OPM knows that you will be willing to go the full course — to the Merit Systems Protection Board, to the Full Board Appeal, to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.  If OPM denies your case and they get it reversed at the appellate level, it makes them “look bad”.

That is the stick to hold over them — the force of the law.  The carrot part of it is to streamline it and make it as easy as possible by obtaining a clear and concise medical report.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Responsibility of the Office of Personnel Management

Perhaps it is an anomaly to even speak about the issue of “the responsibility” of the Office of Personnel Management — at least, from the general consensus of experiences as told by countless individuals who have filed for disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, especially in recent years, one might conclude that OPM is slow to respond, or often refuses to respond at all.  However, to be fair, OPM — as with all other Federal Agencies — is made up of individuals; and the “good” or “bad” of an Agency is entirely dependent upon such individuals.  Most of the disability retirement specialists at OPM are, in my opinion, of the “good” sort.  Without naming names, there are a few of the “bad” sort.  Of course, that says very little, because such a generalized statement could be true of all Federal Agencies.  Moreover, OPM is presently short-staffed, overworked, and way behind on the processing of disability retirement claims.  What used to be a 60-day wait at the initial application stage is taking 90 – 120 days; and at the Reconsideration (2nd) Stage, what used to take 90 days is now taking 120 – 150 days, in many cases.   More than the “time” it takes, however, just remember that the primary responsibility of OPM is to take a careful and serious look at your disability retirement application/packet.  Also, remember that those disability retirement packets which are streamlined, logically constructed, and coherently argued, are the ones which will likely be quickly processed.  Don’t just strap a volume of medical records onto an application and hope for approval; in this day and age, it might be a wise investment to hire an attorney to “streamline” your packet.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The First Denial

One should not be overly panicked when the Office of Personnel Management denies a disability retirement application at the initial stage of the process.  Certainly, the denial needs to be taken seriously; the basis for the denial (which is often couched in confusing terms, based upon conflicting — almost contradictory — assertions and claims) must be identified and addressed; additional medical documentation may be needed; the proper legal authorities must be cited.

To put it bluntly:  while it is almost always a good idea to prepare, present, and file a Federal Disability Retirement application with the assistance, guidance and counsel of an attorney, it is essential that an OPM disability retirement denial be rebutted by an attorney who is familiar with the process, the laws, and the compelling arguments necessary in answering the reasons as stated in the “Discussion” section of OPM’s denial letter.

To panic is merely to waste time; to prepare is the wise course; to map out a cogent plan on how to win at the Reconsideration Stage — and, if necessary, the next stage of appeal, the Merit Systems Protection Board — is the wisest approach.  As Easter is a time of renewal, and Spring is now upon us, during the next few weeks, I will be “going back to basics” and reviewing  the process, the law, and the methodology of effectively applying to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits for FERS & CSRS employees.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Bruner Presumption – Agency Actions, Part II

One must never misunderstand the law and its application.  This is true in any legal arena of every area of law; when it comes to Federal Disability Retirement law, the misunderstanding of an application of law can have direct and irreparable consequences:  the failure to secure disability retirement benefits and, therefore, the financial security for one’s future.

The “Bruner Presumption” is one such application of law which is often misunderstood.  Without revealing all of its proper applications, it can (and is) often misunderstood to be equivalent to a “presumption of innocence” — but that would be wrong.  The Bruner Presumption comes about as a result of an Agency Action — of removal based upon the employee’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.

With or without the Bruner Presumption in Federal Disability Retirement law, the “Burden of Production” — i.e., of the medical documentation, the factual establishment that the Agency is unable to accommodate the individual — still rests and remains with the applicant.  One must never think that the applicability of the Bruner Presumption makes a case a “slam dunk” of any sort.

This is especially so where we are talking about those medical conditions which are often viewed as “suspect” by the Office of Personnel Management — such as Fibroymyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity cases, etc (by “suspect”, however, I do not mean to imply that such medical conditions make it harder for an applicant to get it approved; rather, it merely requires that the one who is preparing such an application, do it properly, thoroughly, and with legal force).

Remember that the initial, and continuing, burden of production always remains with the applicant; what the Bruner Presumption merely does is to “shift” some of the weight of the burden of proof over to OPM, and in the event of an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, of placing a Federal Disability Retirement case into a more favorable light with the Administrative Judge.

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