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 Merit Systems Protection Board

An appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a Federal Disability Retirement case means that the disability retirement application has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management:  at the initial application stage, then at the Reconsideration Stage.  This is often considered to be the third and last try — of convincing an administrative judge (an “AJ”) that you are entitled and eligible for disability retirement.  There are, of course, two additional stages — an appeal to the Full Board and to the Federal Circuit Court — but such avenues present only the right to reverse a decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board, and no new evidence can be presented.

Thus, one might consider the Merit Systems Protection Board as the “last stop” in the administrative process.  Do not think, however, that the process must necessarily be won before the Administrative Judge in a hearing — much work and persuasive argumentation should be made to the OPM representative who is handling the case at this MSPB Stage.  The OPM representative at the Third Stage of the process is usually an attorney; they are competent; they are versed in the case-law — and thus open to be persuaded by legal argumentation.  While the administrative stages (the Initial Stage and the Reconsideration Stage) involved OPM representatives who are non-attorneys, the MSPB Stage involves seasoned attorneys who present an opportunity for persuasion and argumentation, and thus a golden opportunity to convince OPM to reverse their own decision before coming to a Hearing.  Such an opportunity should never be missed, and every effort should be made by the applicant’s attorney to have multiple contacts with the OPM representative prior to the date of the Hearing.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Further Thoughts on Reasonable Accommodation by the Agency

The problem with Agency efforts to provide an employee with reasonable accommodations is that such attempts are too often than not, neither “reasonable” nor legally viable accommodations.  Let’s remember that a legally viable “accommodation” is that act, allowance, or modification, which allows the employee to continue to perform and complete the core or essential elements of one’s position.  Further, Federal and Postal employees need to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency providing an accommodation that is neither legally viable (for Federal disability retirement purposes) nor “reasonable”.

Let me explain.  Let’s say that an employee works for the Postal Service.  He or she gets injured, and let’s even assume that it is a valid OWCP Department of Labor claim.  At some point, because OWCP/DOL is NOT a retirement system, they will often “create” a “modified position” and make a modified, or light-duty job offer.  It could be as extreme as sitting in a corner and answering the telephone.  Now, if the individual gets the same pay, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a modified job offer.  However, at the same time, you need to remember that accepting such a modified job offer does not preclude the employee from filing for, and getting approved, an application for Federal Disability Retirement.  This is because the modified (or “light duty”) job offer is not a real, previously-vacant position, and therefore is neither “reasonable” nor truly an accommodation under federal disability retirement laws.  Nevertheless, there was nothing wrong with the Agency making up such a “modified job” and offering it to the employee.  This is true of all Agencies in the Federal Government, across the Board, from FAA Air Traffic Controllers who have lost their medical clearances, to IT Specialists who have lost their security clearances, to executive level administrators:  modified duties, and “make-up” positions, while remaining in the same position, does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with the modified job offer.  It just means that such a modified job is neither a “reasonable” accommodation, and nor is it an “accommodation” at all — at least, not under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement & the Economy

I have been asked, via multiple emails, of my opinion concerning the right time to file for disability retirement, given the state of the current economy. I am not an economist; I am an attorney who specializes in obtaining disability retirement benefits for Federal and Postal employees under FERS & CSRS. With that prefatory caution, let me state that I am an optimist, and always see the glass as “half full” as opposed to “half empty”.

First, if a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform the essential elements of one’s job, then it is probably time to file for disability retirement. Second, while disability retirement does not pay a great amount of money, it is a base annuity which allows one to go out and start a “second career”, and make up to 80% of what a person’s former position presently pays, on top of the disability annuity. Further, because disability retirement allows one to retain one’s health insurance benefits, such an individual can be an attractive candidate to a private employer, because of the lack of need to insure the person in the course of his/her the second career. Third, in a tough economy, part-time employment is often more available, and so it is often a good economy for individuals who have a base annuity to rely upon, and who are looking for supplemental income.

In any event, one should always look at disability retirement benefits as an opportunity to preserve one’s deteriorating health, and move on to pursue other avenues of opportunities.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal/OPM disability retirement: Filing for SSA

I keep getting the same feedback that tells me that people are still receiving erroneous information: SSA disability benefits do NOT have to be applied for first before you file for OPM Disability retirement benefits. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management only needs the receipt showing that a disability retirement annuitant filed for SSA disability benefits at the time of approval. Further, OPM would actually prefer that the SSA denial was based upon reasons other than the fact that the Applicant is still working, because the coordinating off-set between SSA & FERS disability benefits would come into play; however, if an applicant files for SSA benefits & files for disability retirement benefits while still working (and, for most individuals, it is an economic necessity that one continue to work for as long as possible during the process of obtaining disability retirement benefits), then that individual will summarily be denied by the Social Security Administration based not on the medical disability claimed, but rather, upon the fact that the applicant’s current income exceeds the maximum allowed by the Social Security Administration rules governing income and eligibility for benefits based upon income. Thus, for the 50th time: a FERS disability retirement applicant does NOT need to file for SSA disability benefits before filing for OPM disability retirement benefits. At some point in the process, prior to, or at the time of approval by OPM, the individual should file, obtain a receipt of filing, and fax it to OPM.

I hope this clarifies the issue.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Reasonableness of the Governing Law

Without getting into too many comparisons, the laws governing disability retirement benefits are, upon reflection, actually quite reasonable.  Think about it this way:  yes, it doesn’t pay a great amount, but at the same time, you are encouraged to go out and be productive in some other employment capacity, and are able to make up to 80% of what your former job pays currently.

Unlike the stringent and onerous OWCP/DOL laws, you are not subjected to arbitrary, so-called “independent” medical examinations by doctors who make a substantial portion of their livelihood on rendering such “independent” second, third, and fourth opinions; your application is based upon what your own treating doctor says — not by some doctor who is a specialist in “disability ratings” or “disability determinations”.

This latter criteria is actually for the benefit of the applicant, when you stop and think about it.  For, if the law allowed for disability retirement applications to be determined by doctor’s opinions who are “disability specialists”, and not by your own treating doctor, then what would happen is that the entire disability retirement process would become a war between doctors and so-called specialists, overshadowing the one who should count the most — the treating doctor.

Instead, as the reasonableness of the present law stands, the weight of the medical determination is based upon the applicant’s longstanding treating doctor — and that is the way it should be.  For it is only a doctor who has enjoyed many years of an intimate doctor-patient relationship who should be granted the special weight and status that is accorded in disability retirement laws:  the special status of one who can make a viable, respectable determination of one’s employment capabilities, based upon the medical conditions he or she suffers from.  All in all, the disability retirement laws are governed by a criteria of reasonableness.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Additional Issues Concerning Resignation

An Agency has a legitimate concern with respect to the work that is not being performed while a person is either out on sick leave, or on leave without pay as a result of a medical condition.

On the other hand, Federal and Postal employees who have worked for a sufficient amount of time to be eligible for disability retirement benefits (18 months for FERS employees; 5 years for CSRS employees) have a legitimate expectation of bilateral loyalty — meaning that, inasmuch as the employee has been loyal in the performance of his or her job to the Agency, there is a reasonable expectation that the Agency will be loyal during times of medical hardship, and treat the employee with empathy and compassion.

At some point, greater friction begins to build as the time-frame keeps expanding; the Agency wants the employee back at work, or have the position filled. During the “friction” time, the employee has the leverage to have the Agency propose an administrative, non-adversarial removal based upon the medical inability of the employee to perform his or her duties. It is up to the attorney to persuade the Agency that the goal of the employee runs in the same goal-oriented direction as the Agency: the Agency wants the position; the employee wants disability retirement; both have a common end in mind — vacancy of the position so that the work of the Agency can be accomplished. On the other hand, resignation for the employee gives the employee nothing other than separation from the Agency; it gives the Agency everything it desires.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: OPM’s Methodology (Part I of II)

When the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) approves a Federal Disability Retirement application, a separate page from the approval letter will often be attached, which states the medical basis upon which the disability retirement application was approved.  The separate page will often state something to the effect of: “You submitted an application for disability retirement based upon medical conditions, A, B, C & D; however, your application was approved for medical condition B only.”

The concern here, of course, is that if you are later selected to answer an OPM Medical Questionnaire asking you to re-establish your medical disability for continuation of your disability annuity some years later, that you make certain that you answer such a Medical Questionnaire based upon that very medical condition upon which you were approved.  This is obviously important.

Some have questioned whether or not you can appeal the approval letter based upon the fact that you believe OPM should have approved you based upon a different medical condition.  In my view, this is not an appealable issue, and if you question OPM as to whether they should have considered you disabled based upon another medical condition, you may be in greater danger by OPM reversing themselves based upon a re-review of your case.

It is best to leave “well enough alone”.  Accept the approval letter based upon the identified medical condition, and inform your treating doctor that you may need his input in the future — to address that very medical condition for which you were approved.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire