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

OPM Disability Retirement: The Case of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is one of those medical conditions that the Office of Personnel Management systematically “targets” as a condition which is prima facie “suspect”. This is despite the fact that there are cases which implicitly “admonish” OPM from engaging in the type of arbitrary reasoning of denying a disability retirement application because they “believe” that “no objective medical evidence” has been submitted, or that the “pain” experienced (diffuse as it might be) is merely “subjective”, or that the chronicity of the pain merely “waxes and wanes”, and a host of multiple other unfounded reasonings. Yet, cases have already placed a clear boundary around such arbitrary and capricious reasonings.

A case in point, of course, is Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit case, decided on November 26, 2007. In that case, it clearly circumscribes the fact that OPM can no longer make the argument that an Applicant’s disability retirement application contains “insufficient medical evidence” because of its lack of “objective medical evidence”. This is because there is no statute or regulation which “imposes such a requirement” that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability. As long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with ‘generally accepted professional standards'”, then the application is eligible for consideration. Further, the Court went on to state that it is “legal error for either agency (OPM or the MSPB) to reject submitted medical evidence as entitled to no probative weight at all solely because it lacks so-called ‘objective’ measures such as laboratory tests.” Statues are passed for a reason: to be followed by agencies. Judges render decisions for a reason: for agencies to follow. Often, however, agencies lag behind statutes and judicial decisions. It is up the an applicant — and his or her attorney — to make sure that OPM follows the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB.

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, as long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with generally accepted professional standards,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.

As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Are Psychiatric Disabilities Denied More Readily?

I am often asked whether or not it is more difficult to get disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS based upon a psychiatric medical condition (e.g., PTSD, Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bipolar Disorder, etc.).  Does the Office of Personnel Management deny a disability retirement application which is based solely upon a psychiatric condition?   Should a FERS or CSRS disability retirement application always include a physical condition? The short and simple answer is an unequivocal “No”.

Let me provide a slightly more expanded answer:  (1)  In my experience, psychiatric disabilities present no greater obstacles than physical disabilities.  So long as we can prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the medical condition — physical or psychiatric — prevents one from performing the essential elements of one’s job, there really is no difference between the two.  (2)  Do not “add” a physical disability because you think that a psychiatric disability is “not enough”.  This would be a foolish approach.  Focus upon the primary medical conditions, whether physical or psychiatric, in proving your case.  (3)  Remember that disability retirement often has other complex factors which come into play — accommodation issues; certain jobs are more easily shown to be “incompatible” with a psychiatric disability (for instance, Law Enforcement Personnel who have psychiatric disabilities obviously must have the mental acuity to perform the inherently dangerous aspects of the position); and remember that psychotropic medications, prescribed and necessary for daily functioning, often have side-effects which impact one’s ability to perform one’s job.

The point in all of this is that there really is no substantive difference between psychiatric disabilities and physical ones, anymore; the societal stigma of “psychiatric medical conditions” has largely disappeared, and the Office of Personnel Management — in my experience — treats both psychiatric disabilities and physical disabilities on an equal par.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: When to Get an Attorney

As I explain to all potential clients, whether an individual should attempt to obtain Federal disability retirement benefits with or without an attorney, is an individual and personal decision, based upon a number of factors.

I place everyone on a spectrum:  on the far left side of the spectrum is a Letter Carrier who becomes paralyzed.  That person does not need me as an attorney. He/she needs to gather the medical records, fill out the forms, and submit the application.  On the far right side of the spectrum is a Supervisor who goes out on “stress leave”.  That person should almost definitely hire an attorney, because disability retirement based upon the medical condition of stress alone, is difficult to obtain. Most Federal and Postal employees fall somewhere in-between those two extremes.  Further, and obviously, I believe that I am of assistance to my clients, and (hopefully), based upon the years of feedback I have received, my clients firmly believe that my legal methodology and approach were instrumental in obtaining disability retirement benefits for them.

Two further things to consider:  First, I rarely accept cases where an individual has filed the application, gotten it rejected, filed for reconsideration, gotten it rejected, and then went to the Merit Systems Protection Board where the Judge upheld OPM’s decision to deny the application:  when an individual has gone through all three Stages, and asks me to file a Petition for Review, I will normally not take on such a case.  I will, of course, consider being hired to re-file the case (assuming that the person has not been separated from service for over a year); but I cannot take on a case for a Petition for Review and further appeal when I have not been the one instrumental throughout the first three stages of the process.  Second, many individuals come to me with barely 30 days left to file.  I take on such “emergency cases” on a case-by-case basis, depending upon my time-allowance, my schedule, etc.

The Lesson:  Each individual must make the decision as to whether or not to hire an attorney, which attorney to hire, when to hire.  From my perspective:  Federal Disability Retirement is, when all is said and done, a process to secure the financial future and stability of one’s life.  As such, hire an attorney who specializes in Federal and Postal disability retirement, and hire one early on in the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire