Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: Experience & the Medical Condition

Often, when a client receives the finalized disability retirement packet, I receive a response that goes something like:  “I didn’t realize I was so bad off, until I read through the prepared packet.”  While I have not personally experienced the medical conditions of my many clients over the years, I have the experience of having spoken to them, and have learned about the symptoms, the words which best describe the pain, the impact, and the symptoms which are experienced on a daily basis.

That is why it is an absurdity for the Office of Personnel Management, for example, to continually and redundantly refer to Fibromyalgia cases as ones with symptoms which “wax and wane”.  Or, with severe Major Depression, Anxiety and panic attacks, the Office of Personnel Management will systematically deny many such claims by stating that there is no “objective medical evidence” to show that the individual is unable to continue to provide efficient service in a cognitive-intensive job.

It is the job of the attorney, in a Federal Disability Retirement case, to be the one who projects the experience of the disabled Federal or Postal employee.  The attorney does not have to personally experience the medical condition in order to properly and descriptively convey the impact of the symptoms and debilitating conditions; however, it is helpful if the attorney has had a wide range of experience — by having spoken to multiple individuals over the years who have personally experienced such conditions.  In this way, the attorney can obtain the experience to express the medical experience of the applicant.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Decisions of Denial in FERS Disability Retirement Cases

It is a frightening thought that there may be a percentage of Federal or Postal Federal Disability Retirement applicants who read an initial denial from the Office of Personnel Management, and take their words at face value.

From statements such as, “Your doctor has failed to show that your condition is amenable to further treatments” (by the way, when did the Office of Personnel Management obtain a medical degree or complete a residency requirement?) to “you have not shown that you are totally disabled from performing efficient work” (hint:  this is not Social Security, and the standard is not “total disability”), to a full spectrum of error-filled statements in between, one may suspect that there may be a knowing strategy in rendering a denial, knowing that a small percentage of the corpus of disability retirement applicants will simply walk away and not file a Request for Reconsideration.

Further, I suspect that this occurs more often with certain more “vulnerable” medical conditions — Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Major Depression, PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks; Chemical Sensitivity cases, etc.  Why do I suspect these?  Mostly because such cases are attacked for “lacking objective medical evidence” (see my articles on Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, and similar writings) and failing to provide “diagnostic test results”, etc.

There was a time, long ago, when it used to mean something when someone said, “The Government says…”  In this day and age, I would advise that you take it to an attorney to review whether or not the words of the Office of Personnel Management are true or not.

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: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB.

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, 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,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.

As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Quality versus Quantity

While most Federal Disability Retirement applicants whom I represent, and have represented, retain me at the initial stage of the application, a good many of my clients come to me at the Second (Reconsideration) and Third (Merit Systems Protection Board) Stages of the process.  I find that the vast majority of the individuals who attempted to put his or her disability retirement packet together, and got it denied at the first level, attempted to simply overpower the Office of Personnel Management with a voluminous compendium of medical records.

Wrong move.  Always place quality over quantity.

Streamlining a case is often the key to winning a disability retirement case.  This is just as true for cases involving Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, etc.  Because such medical conditions are often thought of as “not quite” legitimate conditions, applicants often make the mistake of thinking that by overloading the Office of Personnel Management with a thick, unwieldy file of medical records, that the sheer weight of the records will convince OPM that it is a “legitimate” case.

Wrong move.  Don’t be defensive.

Such conditions as Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Bi-polar Disorder, panic attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder — they are all legitimate basis for disability retirement.  Such medical conditions need not be apologized for.  Such conditions need not be “defensively” or “apologetically” submitted.  They are legitimate conditions to file; they just need to be submitted in the proper manner — by having a strong, streamlined, and cohesive medical narrative, properly prepared by the doctor, under the guidance of a Federal Disability Retirement attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Thoughts on Specific Disabilities

There is a view that is often proposed that, for certain medical conditions or disabilities, that a different “approach” needs to be undertaken.  Thus, by way of example, certain medical conditions such as (to name just a few, and of course, the list is by no means intended to be exhaustive) Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), various forms of Multiple Chemical/Environmental Sensitivity cases, and even psychiatric conditions such as Bi-polar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, etc. — are often thought to be somehow in a “different” category from (again, by way of example) more “traditional” medical conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Shoulder Impingement Syndrome, Osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs (cervical or lumbar), Torn ACL, Failed Back Syndrome, etc.

Thus, the question sometimes posed is:  should the former types of medical conditions somehow be treated “differently” than the latter, more traditional types of medical conditions?  My answer is, generally, “No”.

First, each individual case must be treated based upon the uniqueness of the particular case.  Second, to file a disability retirement application “differently” because you fear that OPM may not accept your particular kind of medical condition approaches the entire process in a defensive, almost defeatist manner.  Third, because Federal Disability Retirement is based upon the symptoms which are manifested, as opposed to a “category” of a medical condition, and further, how those symptoms and manifested symptomatologies impact the essential elements of one’s job, it is the emphasis upon the nexus between the symptoms and the core elements of the job which should always be emphasized, and not what your medical condition is “called” or “named” as.

Thus, as a general point of legal approach, I prepare all of my clients’ disability retirement applications in a similar vein:  that, regardless of what condition you have been diagnosed with, the symptoms exhibited and clinically identified by your treating doctor impact your ability to perform the essential elements of your job.  This is the best approach to take in all cases.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Federal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities

I am often asked, on an initial interview/consultation of a potential client, whether or not psychiatric medical disabilities (Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, panic attacks, Bi-polar disorder, etc.) are “more difficult” to prove than physical disabilities. This question is similar, of course, to the question often asked of certain other kinds of disabilities, like Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other similar (often designated as “auto-immune” disabilities) medical conditions.

In my experience, there is no single generic answer to the question of whether or not a particular medical disability is “more difficult” to prove than another. In my experience, I have gotten approved an application for Major Depression based upon a single-page note from a Psychiatrist; on the converse/inverse experience, I have had cases rejected at the First Stage of the process (but, fortunately, had the same cases approved at the Second, Reconsideration Stage) showing chronic, failed-back syndrome cases where prior surgical discectomies, multiple diagnostic MRIs showing incontrovertible basis for severe and radiating pain, and multiple specialists verifying the client’s clear and irrefutable inability to perform the essential elements of his/her job. In preparing a Federal disability retirement retirement application, my many years of experience has taught me a number of elementary & foundational lessons: First, a clear and concise presentation of providing a direct nexus between the particular medical condition and the type of job that the Federal/Postal employeee performs, is very important; Second, it is very rarely the volume of records which is convincing; rather, it is the quality of the medical report which is paramount; and Third, it often depends upon which OPM Disability Specialist it is assigned to, which sometimes “makes the difference” between approval and denial.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Situational Disability II

To reiterate: Situational disability can be an issue which can defeat a disability retirement application, precisely because OPM (and if it gets to the MSPB level, the Administrative Judge) can conclude that the Psychiatric disability in question originates and results in response to the hostile workplace environment.

These three concepts are important to understand — originate, result in, and result “in response to”. A psychiatric condition can originate from a hostile work environment, but as long as the medical condition then pervades beyond the work environment and impacts a person’s life through and through, then that alone does not constitute situational disability, because while it may have originated from A, it is not limited to A.

The second concept — results in — must be seen in the context of the condition of the psychiatric disability. Thus, does the (for example) Major Depression or anxiety result solely from the work environment, or does one experience the symptoms while at home, even while away from the work environment?

And thirdly, does the individual experience the symptoms of the psychiatric condition “in response to” his or her exposure to the work environment, or are the symptoms all-pervasive: i.e., throughout all aspects of the person’s life?

To differentiate these three concepts is important in avoiding the pitfalls of situational disability, and in helping to prepare a Psychiatrist in either preparing a medical narrative report, or in his or her testimony before an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire