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: The Filing II

People often come to me at the 2nd (Reconsideration) Stage, or the 3rd (Merit Systems Protection Board) Stage, and ask that I correct the mistakes made in the initial filing. Most mistakes can be corrected. Of course, it would have been better if the Applicant had done it properly the first time, for once the Office of Personnel Management views something which should not have been submitted, it cannot be easily retracted — only further explained.

There are, moreover, certain mistakes which cannot be “explained away” — such as deliberate omissions or deceptions. Thus, if the Office of Personnel Management gets the idea that there is an element of deceptiveness in a disability retirement application — either through omission or deliberate avoidance of an issue — then it becomes a difficult case to win. Honesty is always the best policy, and no Disability Retirement applicant should ever engage in any act of covering up any information. This is conceptually different from emphasizing the elements in a disability retirement application which favor an approval, as opposed to de-emphasizing those elements which tend to obscure the primary elements of an application. Such artful emphasis/de-emphasis should always be a part of every disability retirement application, coordinating the Applicant’s Statement of Disability with supporting medical documentation, to convey a consistent “whole” to the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Additional Guidance on Disability Retirement Supervisor’s Statement

Some have asked me whether acceptance of a temporary light duty assignment is of concern in a disability retirement application. If you look at SF 3112B (Supervisor’s Statement), Section E(3), the question is whether the employee has “been reassigned to ‘light duty’ or a temporary position?

If the Supervisor answers “No”, then of course there is no issue which would arise which would impact a disability retirement application; if the Supervisor answers “yes”, then it can actually be used as an argument for a disability retirement application, because it can be argued that the fact that the Agency has reassigned the applicant to a temporary “light duty” position is additional evidence of the acknowledgment by the Agency that the applicant could not perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, and therefore in such recognition, the Agency provided for a temporary light duty assignment. Acceptance of such an assignment is not a bar to disability retirement, precisely because it is not a “reassignment” to a “vacant” position, as required in the case of Bracey v. OPM.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Be Careful

As part of a Federal or Postal employee’s process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, one may have to negotiate, respond to, or fight against an unfair Agency’s attempt to remove the Federal or Postal employee — based upon factors other than what is truly the underlying basis — of his or her medical inability to perform the essential elements of the Federal job.

For whatever reason — of incompetence, of pure unkindness, of personal vendettas, etc. —  Agencies will often refuse to remove an individual for the administratively neutral reason (by “neutral”, to mean that it is not an “adverse” action) of “medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job”.  Instead, they will often revert to other reasons:  “excessive absences”, “AWOL”, “excessive LWOP”; “violation of a PIP”, and other such overtly misleading reasons.

When, the truth of the matter is/was, the Federal or Postal employee was sick, has a medical condition, and could not come to work because of medical reasons.  Be careful.  Fight the removal action.  Don’t accept the unfair basis.  File an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Remember, a removal for medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job can help you get an approval in a disability retirement application.  Better yet, hire an attorney who will fight for you.

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

OPM Disability Retirement: The Process & Time

Time is also part of the entire process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement; time factors involve multiple issues from multiple aspects and perspectives:  The Statute of Limitations of filing a Federal Disability Retirement within one (1) year of being separated from federal service; the fact that the 1-year mark begins from the date of actual separation, not from the date of disability, or the date of one’s inability to perform one’s job (although those dates may, on occasion, coincide); the fact that the medical condition must last for at least 1 year (while, at the same time, recognizing that one normally should not wait for the year to pass before filing for Federal Disability Retirement, because most doctors can provide an opinion, within reasonable medical certainty, that the medical condition impacting one’s inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job will last for at least a year, normally quite early on in the process); the time it takes for the doctor to prepare a proper medical narrative report; the time it takes for the Agency to prepare and attach to the disability retirement packets its required forms; the time it takes for Boyers, PA to process the case and assign a CSA Number to it (which begins with a “4” for CSRS employees, and an “8” for FERS employees); the time it takes to get the case assigned once it is sent down to Washington, D.C.; the time it takes, once assigned, for an Initial Approval or Denial.  And, of course, all the while, during this entire “process” of time, issues as to whether the applicant should, could, or will continue to work, either at the Agency, in some light duty capacity, or in some other job.  These are all “time/process” issues which an attorney can guide and assist a client with, in the complex “process” of filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Confusion About the 1-Year Rule

I am receiving too many questions about certain issues, which leads me to believe that a clarification is again in order.

First, concerning the Statute of Limitations on filing for Federal disability retirement benefits.  A Federal or Postal Employee must file for federal disability retirement benefits within one (1) year of being separated from Federal Service.  Thus, if you have been on LWOP, or on OWCP, or on sick leave, but you are still receiving “zero-balance” paychecks which show that you have NOT been separated from service yet, then your 1-year statute of limitations has not yet even begun.  The 1-year Statute of Limitations begins from the effective date of your separation from Federal Service. Your SF 50 (or, for Postal employees, PS Form 50) would reflect that date of separation.

Second, some of the questions which have been posed to me suggest that there is a misunderstanding as to the substantive requirements of the law, as well.  A Federal or Postal worker does NOT have to have been medically unable to perform one’s job for a full year before filing for disability retirement.  Rather, the requirement is prospective — that your medical condition must last for at least 1 year.  Thus, normally after a few months of treating with your doctor, your doctor should be able to make a reasonable medical determination that your medical condition is going to last for at least a year, and more often than not, for much longer.

The distinction which I am attempting to clarify can make a tremendous difference: Federal and Postal workers filing for federal disability retirement do not have to wait a year after learning of his or her medical condition — that would be foolish, especially because the process of obtaining disability retirement can itself often take 6 – 8, sometimes 10 – 12 months.  Rather, a Federal or Postal worker can file soon after learning about a medical condition, so long as the treating doctor can provide a reasonable medical opinion that the condition will last for a minimum of 1 year.

I hope that this will help clarify any confusion people may have about the “1-year” rule — both as it applies to the ability to file for federal disability retirement benefits, as well as to the issue of how long the medical condition must last.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Federal Disability Retirement: When the Office of Personnel Management Fails to Apply the Law

Federal disability retirement law is often a frustrating process. On the one hand, for an attorney, it can be a professionally satisfying area of law to practice because the end result — obtaining a benefit for an individual who has shown long years of loyal service to working for the Federal Government; providing a source of income for a person who has been impacted by a medical condition; reaching a successful conclusion to a process: these factors are always satisfying for a practicing attorney. On the other hand — this is an administrative process; it is an area called, “Administrative Law”, and at least at the initial stages of the process, the Attorney handling such a case is dealing with non-attorneys at the Office of Personnel Management.

In other areas of practice, there is often an “equality of competence” (presumably), where attorneys compete or engage in adversarial battle with other attorneys. With Disability Retirement Law, however, the “Disability Specialist” at the Office of Personnel Management often has absolutely no clue as to the current laws governing disability retirement. They simply apply a template and, if a specific case goes outside of that preconceived “template”, then the OPM Representative will often deny the case. Now, in all fairness, most of the people at OPM have a fair idea of the current law, and more importantly, are open to being informed, educated and persuaded by an attorney that a particular case, with its various wrinkles (and all cases have their unique wrinkles), should be approved because of compliance with a particular statute, a relevant case-law, or a particular regulatory statement. In some particular cases, however, when an OPM representative makes a decision based upon complete ignorance of the prevailing disability retirement laws, one can only throw up one’s hands, and hope that the Reconsideration Specialist will have greater knowledge — or, at the very least, is open to being educated on the proper application of the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The “No Other Choice” Case

Then, of course, there are cases where an individual has “no other choice” than to file for disability retirement. Sometimes, it is a chance that is taken — the chance of paying an attorney. Yes, adverse removal actions can impact one’s chances of obtaining disability retirement benefits. A case study: A recent client was removed from a Federal Agency for criminal conduct (obviously, no names will be used, and the facts will be somewhat altered to protect the client’s confidentiality of information). The individual was nowhere near retirement age; but suffice it to say that he/she had been a loyal employee for 20 years. He/she had a medical condition — a psychiatric condition, which pre-dated the criminal conduct. He/she hired me to obtain disability retirement.

What choice did the person have? He/she really had “no other choice” other than to walk away with nothing, or take the chance of paying an attorney (in this case, me). I was blunt about the entire affair: Normally, I am able to get most of my clients approved at the first or second stage of the process, and I will normally ascribe a “success-rate” to a case; in this instance, the probable rate of success, in my opinion, was lower than my normal prediction. Nevertheless, he/she wanted to go forward with it. I contacted the doctors and guided them into writing a forthright medical report; today, the client is receiving his/her disability retirement annuity. Did the person “deserve it” despite the criminal conduct? Absolutely! His/her medical condition pre-dated the criminal conduct, and in fact was a major factor in the actuation of the criminal conduct itself. I am happy for the client, and from a professional standpoint, it is always satisfying to win a case where a client entrusted a case in which he/she had “no other choice” — but once the choice was made, to have made the right choice.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire