Federal OPM Disability Retirement: The Simplicity of the Complex

It is not the forms which make it complex — although, the instructions which accompany the filling out of the Standard Forms make it appear more convoluted than necessary.

Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees of the Federal Government and the U.S. Postal Service is actually quite simple in conceptual terms, and in the process of attempting to win an approval from the Office of Personnel Management, we encounter the complexity of the entire administrative process, thereby overlooking the simplicity of the actual law underlying the process.

That is why it is often a good idea to periodically pause and “go back to basics” before moving forward on a disability retirement application.  As stated multiple times, disability retirement is essentially the linking of a “nexus” between one’s medical conditions, and one’s Federal or Postal position.

By “linking” is meant the following: Does the medical condition from which one suffers prevent one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job?  If the answer to the question is “yes”, then you have passed the preliminary, fundamental, preconditional question.  The next question, or series of questions, of course, include the following: Do you have the minimum of 18 months of Federal Service (for CSRS individuals, 5 years)? Do you have a supportive doctor? Will your medical condition last for at least 1 year?

These are just some of the basic, preliminary questions to ask, before considering the option of filing for Federal Disability retirement benefits.  The questions and answers themselves are simple; as one gets more and more involved in the process, they become, in combination, procedurally and substantively a complex issue of meeting the legal criteria for approval.

Underlying it all is a simple conceptual basis; the complexity comes in applying the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Interaction with Upcoming Postal VER

High pressure sales always need to be met with a pause, a breath, and a moment of reflection.  This is not to attempt to splash any cold water upon the impending Voluntary Early Retirement packets which will be “in the mail” shortly (April 6 – 10, 2009 is the projected date of mailing out VER offer packets to all VER eligible employees).  For some employees, this may be the best and most rewarding route.  My concern is a simple one, with a long history of truth from the great source of all truths:  “If it is too good to be true, then…”   The short window of opportunity within which a decision must be made (all VER eligible employees must decide whether to apply for retirement during the period of April 10 -May 15, 2009; the actual required documents to apply for the VER must be postmarked by May 15, 2009) is short; this is a serious decision, and must be considered carefully.  Some people will decide that the comparison to disability retirement benefits is great enough to consider filing for VER first, obtaining it, then filing for disability retirement benefits within 1 year therafter.  That would be fine, but there are certain steps (creating a “paper trail”) which should be taken if this 1 – 2 – Step is going to be considered.  In any event, the bottom-line consideration must always be:  Is it in the best interest of my future?  Is it the most I can get?  Is it comparable to disability retirement benefits?  Will I think it was the best decision to make 10, 15, 20 years from now (for example, remember that the years in which a person is on disability retirement counts as years in service for recalculation purposes at age 62).  All in all, any decision that has such a small window of consideration must be scrutinized carefully.

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

Merit Systems Protection Board: Hearings are not inevitable

The third step in the process of filing and obtaining disability retirement from the Office of Personnel Management is to appeal the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is initiated after a disability retirement application has been denied twice: First, at the initial stage, then, upon a request for reconsideration and an opportunity to submit additional medical and other documentation, if the Office of Personnel Management denies the application a second time, then the Applicant has the right to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Such a case is then set to be heard by an Administrative Judge, and mandated to be completed within 120 days from the time it is appealed. Many applicants who go into this third stage have the unwarranted belief that a Hearing is an inevitability, and that there is no further opportunity to convince OPM to reverse themselves, or change their minds. That is simply not the case. Often, the OPM representative at the MSPB level is much more attuned to the evidentiary level required, and will entertain the receipt and review of an updated medical report, or additional diagnostic tests, or more detailed treatment notes, etc. The mere fact that OPM denied the application at the first two stages, and the fact that the jurisdictional landscape has now changed from OPM to the MSPB, does not mean that OPM’s mind cannot be changed. The key is to listen carefully at what OPM’s representative is saying at a Prehearing Conference, or even earlier if contact is made with him/her. By listening and complying with a reasonable request, it can save the applicant needless time and expenses (for the testimony of a doctor can, indeed, be expensive), and have the ultimate outcome that the applicant desires: approval of a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire