OPM Disability Retirement: Can the Agency Accommodate You?

The term “accommodations” continues to be a highly misused one.  There is the general conceptual application, as when an agency attempts to do something to help a Federal or Postal employee by “allowing” for “light duty”, or allowing one to work at a reduced schedule, or to take sick leave, annual leave, or Leave Without Pay.  But such actions (as kindhearted as they might be intended) do not constitute a legal accommodation under disability retirement rules, statutes, laws or case-law.

To legally accommodate someone must always mean that the agency does something, provides something, or creates something of a permanent nature, such that it allows you to perform the essential elements of your job.  Temporary measures, or allowing you to take time off, does not allow you to perform the essential elements of your job — instead, it merely allows you take time away from being able to do your job.  Remember, on the other hand, that there is nothing wrong with your Agency doing these things to “help you out”.  It simply does not constitute, or rise to the level of, an “accommodation” under the law.

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

OPM Disability Retirement: Using the Law

The growing body of law is a pliable, ever-changing process, and where appropriate, it is the implied duty of the attorney to apply arguments and persuade by analogy. Sometimes, actions by agencies which, in one particular context, may be deemed as a negative factor, yet in the context of filing for disability retirement, it can be turned around and applied as “proof-positive” that, indeed, it only further shows that one’s medical condition has impacted one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job.

Thus, while an employee may be placed upon a PIP (“Performance Improvement Plan”) or placed on LWOP and subsequently terminated and separated from federal service based upon unacceptable attendance (and in such termination cases, perhaps the Bruner Presumption would not be applied in a technical sense), it is appropriate to argue to the Office of Personnel Management, and further, to the Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, that while the technical application of the Bruner Presumption may not apply, nevertheless, such Agency actions are indicators of the acknowledgment and concession, that the employee suffered from a medical condition, that the medical condition indeed impacted his or her ability to perform the essential elements of the job, and that is why unacceptable attendance and/or a PIP plan was initiated. Negative agency actions, in the context of applying for disability retirement, must be interpreted and argued in the best light possible, in each instance.

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

OPM disability retirement: Clarification of issues for FERS & CSRS employees

In moderating the Martindale-Hubbell Message Board for Federal Disability Retirement Issues, two areas of law need clarification for those out there contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS: First, the issue of whether a potential applicant needs to wait to be separated from Federal Service in order to obtain the “Bruner Presumption“, before filing for disability retirement.

The short answer is an unequivocal, “No”. To wait for an agency hoping that they will separate you for your medical inability to perform your job, is like waiting for your rich uncle to die and leave you an inheritance: It may never happen, and even if it does, it may not be worth it. While the Bruner Presumption is a nice additional weapon to have in arguing for an approval, it is not a necessary element.

The most important element in an OPM disability retirement case is to have a supportive doctor. Application of the Bruner Presumption — a recognition by the Agency that they cannot accommodate you, and further, that you cannot perform your job as a result of your medical condition, while a weapon in arguing for an approval to OPM, is not necessary in most cases. The point is to make sure your supporting medical documentation is strong, thereby negating the need for the Bruner Presumption.

Further, another common confusion which people have is what it means to be “separated from service”. The Statute of Limitations in Federal Disability Retirement cases is 1 year from the date a Federal Employee is separated from Federal Service. The 1-year does NOT begin when a person is on LWOP, or when a person is on FMLA, or any other reason. The 1-year begins when a person is officially terminated, separated, or taken off of the rolls of Federal Service, or when a person resigns from the Federal Service. It is 1 year from that date that a person must file for Federal disability retirement benefits, or you lose your right forever to do so.

Second, and finally (at least for this particular Blog piece), with respect to the 80% rule — where a person can earn income up to 80% of what one’s former Federal job currently pays: this is in addition to the disability retirement annity that a person receives.

Think about it, and it is logical: disability annuity is not “earned income”; the 80% rule applies only to “earned income”. Thus, for example, a person who was making $60,000 at a Federal job, who goes out on disability retirement, would get $36,000 the first year under FERS (60%), and $24,000 per year every year thereafter (40%). At the same time, that person can go out and make up to $48,000 per year (80% of $60,000), with that amount going up slightly each year (assuming that the payscale in the Federal system goes up each year for that same pay and grade). I hope this clarifies some of the issues that may have given rise to some confusion.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The Bruner presumption

Just some comments about this important concept and one which all disability retirement applicants should be aware of. It is well-established law that an employee’s removal for his or her physical inability to perform the essential functions of his job or position, constitutes prima facie evidence that he is entitled to disability retirement as a matter of law, and that the burden of production then shifts to OPM to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the applicant is not entitled to disability retirement benefits. See Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993); and Marczewski v. Office of Personnel Management, 80 M.S.P.R. 343 (1998). What this means, essentially, is that if a Federal or Postal employee is removed for his or her medical inability to perform his/her job, the “burden of production” is placed onto OPM. It is as if OPM must “disprove” a disability retirement case, as opposed to an individual having to prove his/her right to disability retirement. It is a “prima facie” case, in that, by having your Agency remove you for your inability to perform your job, it is considered a valid case “on its face”. Further, in more recent cases, the Merit Systems Protection Board has held that the Bruner Presumption also applies where “removal for extended absences is equivalent to removal for physical inability to perform where it is accompanied by specifications indicating that the decision to remove was based on medical documentation suggesting that the appellant was disabled and unable to perform her duties.” McCurdy v. OPM, DA-844E-03-0088-I-1 (April 30, 2004), citing as authority Ayers-Kavtaradze v. Office of Personnel Management, 91 M.S.P.R. 397 (2002). This means that the removal itself need not specifically state that you are being removed for your medical inability to perform your job; it can remove you for other reasons stated, such as “extended absences”, as long as you can establish a paper-trail showing that those extended absences were based upon a medical reason.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney

Federal Disability Retirement and the Agency Cover of “Accommodation”

I am receiving too many phone calls from people who have been fooled by his/her Agency that they have been “accommodated”, and therefore they cannot file for disability retirement. From Federal Workers at all levels who are told that they can take LWOP when they are unable to work, to Postal Workers who are given “Limited-Duty Assignments” — all need to be clear that your are NOT BEING ACCOMMODATED, AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO FILE FOR DISABILITY RETIREMENT. Let me clarify this issue by first discussing the important case-law of Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Bracey was, and still is, a landmark decision — one of those cases that pushed back the attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to create a broad definition of what “accommodation” means, and thereby try and undermine a Federal and/or Postal Employees’ right to disability retirement. 5 U.S.C. 8337(a) states that a disabled employee is eligible for disability retirement unless the employee is able to render “useful and efficient service in the employee’s position”, or is qualified for reassignment to an existing vacant position in the agency at the same grade or level. What this basically means is that, if you have a medical condition and you cannot do one or more of the essential elements of your job, you are entitled to disability retirement unless your Agency can (a) do something so that you can continue to work in your job, or (b) reassign you to an existing vacant position at the same pay or grade (all of those words are key to understanding the Bracey decision). As to the first issue, if your medical condition, either physical or psychiatric, is impacting your ability to perform the key functions of your job (in other words, “useful and efficient service” means that you must be able to perform the “critical or essential” elements of your position), then it means that you are eligible for disability retirement — unless the Agency can reassign you to an existing vacant position (the second issue). As to the second issue, what the Court in Bracey meant is that there has to be an actual position existing, which is vacant, to which a person can be reassigned and slotted into, at the same pay or grade.

In Bracey, the Office of Personnel Management was trying to have it both ways: they argued that (a) an individual is “accommodated” if he can do his “job”, and the “job” which the Agency was having Mr. Bracey do was a “light-duty” job that was made up by the Agency. As a result, the Office of Personnel Management had denied Mr. Bracey’s application for disability retirement, and the case reached the Merit Systems Protection Board, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on appeal. More recently, Agencies have been trying to convince Federal workers that they can take “Leave Without Pay” and work less hours; or revert to part-time status; or perform some other functions — and this constitutes an “accommodation”. Or, in the case of Postal Workers, especially those who have intersecting OWCP issues, one is often told that “Limited-Duty Assignments” constitute an “accommodation”. However, for the latter, it is important to review such assignments — does it include jobs from another craft? Are you offered a new “Limited Duty Assignment” each year, or every two years (which would imply that it is not a permanent assignment)? Can a new supervisor or Postmaster come in tomorrow and declare that there are no longer any “Limited Duty Assignments” available (which is often the case)?

Remember that a “position” in the federal employment system is “required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it. The ‘resulting position-classification’ system is ‘used in all phases of personnel administration’. 5 U.S.C. 5101(2)” (Bracey at page 1359). It cannot be a position “consisting of a set of ungraded, unclassified duties that have been assigned to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id.

Similarly, for Postal employees, you cannot be slotted in your craft position, but then be given duties crossing over from other crafts; and you cannot be told that you have been slotted into an already existing “vacant” position, but then be offered the same “Limited-Duty” position a year later. If it was truly a permanent “vacant” position, why would you be offered the same position a year later?

Remember that under 5 C.F.R. Section 831.502(b)(7), an offered position must be, among other things, of the same tenure as the position from which the employee seeks disability retirement. “Tenure” is defined at 5 C.F.R. Section 210.102(b)(17) as “the period of time an employee may reasonably expect to serve under his current appointment.”

If you are a Federal or Postal employee, and you find this discussion about the Bracey decision to be somewhat confusing, do not let the complexity of disability retirement laws keep you from inquiring about your eligibility. In its simplest form, disability retirement is about 2 issues: Are you able to perform the essential elements of your job? If not, Can your Agency slot you into an already-existing position at the same pay, grade and tenure, and not just in some “made up” position that hasn’t been graded and classified”? If your answer is “No” to both questions, then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits.

As true with all things in life, it is always better to affirmatively act with knowledge, especially knowledge of the law. Like the Tibetan proverb, to act without knowledge of the law is to act blindly. To fail to act, or to allow your circumstances to control your destiny, is to allow your Federal Agency or the U.S. Postal Service to dictate your future for you. If you are disabled, and unable to perform the critical elements of your job, then you should consider the option of disability retirement. Opting for disability retirement does not mean that you can no longer be productive in society in some other capacity; indeed, you are allowed to receive a disability annuity and go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays. Opting for disability retirement merely means that you have a medical condition which is no longer a good “fit” for the type of job you currently have.

My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement compared to OWCP

OWCP vs. OPM Disability Retirement

The Department of Labor administers Federal Worker’s Compensation Benefits through the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP). Such benefits are non-taxable, and are paid for temporary total disability, for injuries or medical conditions which result from, or are caused by, a workplace injury. There are many tangential factors which may be added to this basic definition, but for purposes of distinguishing OWCP from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Disability Retirement, this definition will suffice. Additionally, generally speaking, OWCP/Federal Worker’s Compensation is not a “retirement system.”

OPM Disability retirement, on the other hand, is a retirement system. As a result of a medical condition which impacts one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, a person is eligible to retire early, based upon a “medical disability.” A person on OPM Disability Retirement is separated from the Federal Agency, and he or she may “move on” in life, and perhaps start another career (with certain limitations as stated below).

When is it Time to File for FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement?

An individual must file for Federal Employees Retirement System/Civil Service Retirement System (FERS/CSRS) disability retirement benefits with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from Federal Service – otherwise, the right to be eligible for disability retirement benefits is lost. Do not confuse this with being placed on Leave Without Pay (LWOP), or being out on OWCP for being injured. The clock begins ticking when you are actually separated from service. Most people, however, should not wait until they are separated to file for disability retirement benefits, but rather, should file whenever it becomes apparent that he or she can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.

Taxable vs NonTaxable Benefits

OWCP benefits are non-taxable. OPM Disability Retirement benefits, on the other hand, are taxed. While receiving disability retirement benefits, a person may undertake a job search, accept another position, and earn up to 80% of what his or her former position currently pays. Individuals receiving OWCP temporary total disability may not work at another job – period. Here is a sample scenario using OPM Disability Retirement rules:

A worker’s average salary for 3 consecutive years totals $50,000. The individual goes out on disability retirement, and after the first year (in which he would receive 60%, or $30,000), he is eligible to receive an annual annuity of 40%, or $20,000. The worker then applies for and accepts a job in the private sector. The worker can accept a job that pays up to $40,000 per year (80% of the current salary), and still be eligible to receive the $20,000 per year disability annuity.

The 80% Rule Increases Over Time

The rule is “80% of what a person’s former job pays currently.” If 5 years from now, a person’s former position pays $60,000 per year instead of $50,000, then he can make up to $48,000 per year at the job, because 80% of $60,000 is $48,000.

Filing for Disability Retirement while on Workers’ Compensation

It is often not a bad idea for those who are receiving OWCP benefits to remain on OWCP for as long as they can stand it (i.e., the persistent harassment, the constant oversight by so-called “2nd opinion doctors”, etc.) — but to always have the FERS/CSRS disability retirement annuity approved as a back-up source of income. Individuals may file for disability retirement concurrently while on OWCP — but you simply cannot collect from both at the same time (See 5 C.F.R. Sec. 844.105, “Relationship to workers’ compensation. (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, an individual who is eligible for both an annuity under part 842 or 844 of this chapter and compensation for injury or disability under subchapter I of chapter 81 of title 5, United States Code (other than a scheduled award under 5 U.S.C. 8107(c)), covering the same period of time must elect to receive either the annuity or compensation.”).

When OWCP terminates payments (and there is a very good chance that this will happen at some point in the near future), it is a wise option to have your disability retirement benefits approved, but held in an inactive status. Federal workers have every right to elect one benefit over the other. Indeed, if you wanted to, you are allowed to go back and forth between OWCP and FERS/CSRS disability retirement.

As a secondary issue on this matter, a closer look at 5 U.S.C. Section 8106, paragraph (c) (2), (OWCP) on “partial disability” compared with the definition for disability retirement reveals: that “partially disabled employee who refuses or, neglects to work after suitable work is offered to, procured by, or secured for him, is not entitled to compensation.” This means that if OWCP secures a job for you as a retail store greeter for instance, and pays you the difference between your salary and what retail store pays — and you decide to say “no”, OWCP has every right to cut off your payments.

On the other hand, under the laws concerning FERS & CSRS disability retirement, 5 C.F.R.Sec. 844.103 (a)(2) states that, in order to be eligible for disability retirement, the individual “must, while employed in a position subject to FERS, have become disabled because of a medical condition, resulting in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or if there is no such deficiency, the disabling medical condition must be incompatible with either useful and efficient service or retention in the position.” The difference here is that, under OWCP, if you are “partially disabled,” if you are offered any job that OWCP believes you can do, you must accept it. On the other hand, under FERS/CSRS disability retirement laws, if you are partially disabled — meaning that you simply cannot do at least one or more of the essential elements of your job — then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits, and your agency or the Postal Service cannot simply offer you any job; they must offer you a job in the same pay or grade, and one in which you are qualified or, if you are in the Postal Service, then it must an accommodation in the same craft.

Controlling Your Future

Under OWCP, you have no control over your future – OWCP determines your future. Under OPM Disability Retirement, you can obtain disability retirement benefits, and then take control of your future and work at another job of your choice, make up to 80% of what your (former) position pays and still continue to receive your disability annuity.