OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this still-fragile economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS, that it will be difficult to “make up” the income with another job, even though a person under Federal Disability Retirement can earn up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays.

Yes, it can be tough; yes, the economy is a concern; but recessions ultimately come to an end, and while a job to make up the severe pay-cut may be long in coming, self-employment, to begin a start-up business, or to work part-time is often an excellent opportunity.  Unlike having the larger percentage of pay under OWCP-DOL benefits, a disability retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS is indeed a greater pay-cut.

But salary is not everything; the freedom of retirement, the ability to determine one’s future, and not be under the constant and close scrutiny of Worker’s Comp, accounts for much.  Where some see a severe pay-cut, others see as an opportunity to begin a second career.  And the price of freedom from those onerous fiefdoms of federal agencies is often better health, and greater enjoyment of one’s freedom and retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement and Paradigms for the Future

In attempting to decide to file for Federal Disability Retirement Benefits, it is often the case that Social Security disability benefits must be considered (not just “considered”, obviously, for FERS employees, because it is a requirement to file for it), and how seriously and vigorously; and further, whether to pursue, or to continue on, OWCP temporary total disability benefits.  These are “paradigms” that must be considered for the future.  By “paradigm”, I mean that they represent “models” of how a person wants his or her future to be based upon.

For instance, let’s take the paradigm of Social Security disability benefits.  Because FERS employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits must also file for Social Security disability benefits (to see if they qualify; and, if qualified, the offsetting features will apply), one must take into consideration whether or not a Federal or Postal employee will actually want Social Security disability benefits.  This question arises because Social Security has a “cap” in which a person who receives Social Security disability benefits can make ancillary earned income (roughly no more than $12,000 per year in 2013).

Because of this, one must think of the future paradigm of one’s life:  If a person on FERS disability retirement wants to go out and get a part-time job, or start on a path for another career, where he or she makes 15, 20, 25,000 per year or more (because remember, a person can make up to 80% of what a person’s former Federal or Postal job currently pays), then he or she may not want to get Social Security disability benefits.

Most people who are on Federal disability retirement are simply disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of the particular job; they are not “totally disabled”, and therefore are able to go out and start a second career.  This is the “paradigm” for the future which must be considered, and such a model for the future must be carefully thought through.  Next:  the OWCP paradigm.

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: 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: Accommodations

While I am often asked about the intersecting connection between the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and Disability Retirement laws under FERS & CSRS, and the issue of accommodations, my short answer is that the two areas of law rarely directly intersect. “Accommodation issues” under disability retirement law rarely present a problem in a practical sense. 

The term itself is rarely applied properly; the best way that I can describe what the term “accommodation” means, in its technical application, is by giving the classic example:  A secretary who suffers from a chronic back condition is unable to perform her secretarial duties because of the high level of distractability from her chronic pain.  The agency purchases an expensive, ergonomic chair, which relieves the chronic pain; she is able to perform the essential elements of her job.  She has thus been “accommodated”. Thus, the definition of “accommodation” is essentially where the Agency does X such that X allows for employee Y to continue to perform the essential elements of Y’s job.  Further, an accommodation cannot be a temporary or modified assignment; in fact, it is not an “assignment” at all — it is something which the Agency does for you such that you can continue to perform your job. 

Thus, as a practical matter, it is rare that an Agency will be able to accommodate an individual. Further, when it comes to psychiatric disabilities, it will be rarer still -especially when the essential elements of one’s job requires the cognitive capabilities which are precisely that which is impacted by the psychiatric medical conditions.  As such, the issue of accommodations is rarely a real issue, and further, people who are attempting to enforce the provisions of the ADA are not those who are truly seeking disability retirement, anyway.  It is the very opposite — they are trying to preserve their jobs, and to force the Agency to provide an “accommodation” under the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Trying it Without an Attorney During the Federal Disability Retirement Process

I get calls all the time by people who tell me that they thought their particular Federal Disability Retirement case was a “slam dunk”; that the medical documentation was there; that everything looked like it should be approved at the first level.  Then, there are people who tell me the same thing after the second, Reconsideration denial — that he or she thought it should definitely pass through.  But law, and especially administrative law before the Office of Personnel Management, has peculiarities beyond a surface, apparent reality.

There is a process and a methodology of obtaining disability retirement. Can a federal retirement attorney guarantee the success of a disability retirement application?  No.  Does an individual applicant have a better chance with the assistance of an attorney who specializes in medical retirement law?  In most cases, yes.  Aren’t there applicants who file for medical retirement, without the assistance of an attorney, who are successful?  Yes.  Should everyone who files for federal retirement hire an attorney?  Not necessarily.

When I speak to a client, I try and place him or her on a spectrum — and on one side of that spectrum is an individual who works at a very physical job, and who has such egregious physical medical disabilities; on the other side of the spectrum is an individual who suffers from Anxiety, who works in a sedentary administrative position (please don’t misunderstand — many people who suffer from anxiety fall into the “serious” side of the spectrum, and I am in no way attempting to minimize the psychiatric disability of Anxiety).

Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle.  Yes, I have told many people to go and file his or her disability retirement application without an attorney.  There are those cases which are so egregious, in terms of medical conditions, that I do not believe than an attorney is necessary.  However, such instances are rare.  Thus, to the question, Should everyone who files for Federal retirement under FERS & CSRS hire an attorney?  Not necessarily — but in most cases, yes.

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