CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Beware the Layman

Federal employee attorneys create and manufacture a parallel universe of statutory interpretation, legal argumentation, case-law citations, and extrapolations from esoteric provisions in arguing the “finer points” of law.  Thus, it is a temptation for the lay person — the “non-lawyer” — to attempt to borrow from cases and take a stab at citing case-law and statutory authority in trying to garner support for his or her Federal Disability Retirement application.

In taking on a case at the Reconsideration Stage or the Merit Systems Protection Board, I have the opportunity to read some of the “legal arguments” which non-lawyers have attempted to make.  While many such arguments are valid, some (i.e., too many) mis-cite the law, and often fail to understand and proffer the substantive import of what the cases are saying.  On top of it all, I suspect that the Office of Personnel Management gets a bit annoyed when a non-lawyer applicant attempts to preach the law to another non-lawyer OPM Representative.

A word to the wise:  let lawyers entertain themselves in the parallel universe of the law; let the doctors render their medical opinions; let the non-lawyers make the best arguments possible, in simple language.

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: 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: The Psychology of the Process

There is, of course, the “psychology” of the process of filing for disability retirement benefits.  The term itself (psychology, psychological) is all too often misused.  All that is meant in this context is that, at each stage of the process (the initial application stage; the Second, Reconsideration Stage; the Third, Merit Systems Protection Board Stage; the fourth & fifth stages of an appeal, either for a Petition for Full Review or an appeal to the Federal Circuit, or sequentially), the applicant should have a general idea of the level of people the Applicant is dealing with.

Thus, for example, at the initial stage of the process, one should not expect the OPM Representative to be fully conversant in the law; whereas, if the case gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board Stage, the OPM representative is fairly well-versed in multiple aspects of the laws governing disability retirement.  Additionally, the level of medical knowledge varies from one OPM representative to the next.

This is not to say that each stage of the process requires a greater level of intellectual input or information; nor does it mean that each stage should be “tailored” based upon the expected level of competence.  Rather, an awareness of what to expect, how to respond, and what level of intellectual responsiveness are all necessary ingredients in preparing and filing a successful disability retirement application. In short, it is important to know the “psychology” of it all.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Complexity of the Simple

Federal disability retirement law, the statutes and regulations which govern eligibility; the multiple case-law opinions from Administrative Judges and Federal Circuit Judges interpreting the governing statutes and regulations; the lawyers who argue different aspects and attempt to “fine-tune” existing law (including this lawyer) — the entirety results in “making complex” that which was essentially simple.

There is an old adage that the King who declared the first law of his Kingdom was really attempting to reduce the unemployment figures by creating the need for lawyers.  Indeed, “the law” is often made more complex by lawyers.  However, while the multiple issues governing Federal disability retirement law under FERS & CSRS may appear, at first glance, “simple”, it is such simplicity which engenders the complex, precisely because laws which reflect a simple conceptual paradigm require extensive interpretation in order to explain the simpleness of the simplicity.  That is why law itself is complex.  Don’t let the complex confluse you.

As you prepare a disability retirement application, recognize that it is a complex process; at the same time, make sure to explain your medical condition and how it impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal position in an easy-going, simple and straightforward manner. Don’t make it complex; keep it simple; but recognize the complexities.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire