CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Right Question (Part I)

Often, a person who is contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS doesn’t know the “right question” to ask in order to make a proper decision.  Because a medical condition often leaves a person with daily and profound fatigue  (both physical and cognitive), it is enough just to get through the day, come home and attempt to recuperate and regain enough strength to try and make it back to work the next day.  Then, of course, there are the financial worries — whether or not the disability annuity will be enough to support a family; whether a person will be able to supplement his or her income with a part-time job in this tough economy; or whether Social Security Disability benefits can be approved and, even with the offset, allow for enough income for some semblence of financial security.

All of these questions — or concerns — are clearly legitimate ones, and provide a good foundation for determining the viability for filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  But there are others, also:  What will happen if you don’t file for disability retirement benefits?  Will you be placed on a PIP?  Will you receive an unsatisfactory performance rating?  Will you last until retirement age?  If you last until retirement age, will you have the health necessary to enjoy your retirement?  Is it time to start a small business venture in this tough economy, and if so, when the economy begins to recover, will your small business grow with a growing economy?  Will your supervisor support your extended absences or over-use of sick leave for much longer?  Is the work that is getting backed up placing more pressure on you, such that it is exacerbating your medical condition further?  Think through the questions seriously.  It may be time to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

[ See also: ”CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Right Questions (Part 2)” ]

OPM Disability Retirement: Differing Perspectives

The old adage, “Walk in your fellow man’s shoes for a mile” is a saying which is meant essentially to teach a child (and many adults) to have a different perspective than one’s own, self-centered universe.  In practicing law, it is a good idea to attempt to obtain a perspective from the multitude of differing “shoes” — and this is especially important in putting together a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS. 

The gathering of such differing and different perspectives — that of the treating doctor; that of the applicant; that of the Agency (the Supervisor and the Agency in its determination that accommodation or reassignment is not available or appropriate for a given employee, given the particular medical conditions and the type of positional duties of the specific job which the Applicant must perform, as well as taking into account what constitutes “efficiency” in the Federal Service, etc.); and further, that of the Office of Personnel Management. 

It is the job of the Attorney representing a Federal or Postal employee in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement packet under FERS or CSRS, to pull together the various perspectives; write up and prepare, and gather the information from the multiple and differing perspectives; to neutralize those perspectives which may impact negatively upon the Federal disability retirement application; then to present the fullness of the different perspectives such that it meets the legal criteria and “perspective” of the Representative from the Office of Personnel Management:  that “ultimate” perspective which determines a “yes” or “no” in determining the viability of a Federal Disability Retirement Application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Service Deficiency & Medical Condition

The Office of Personnel Management will often use as a criteria of denial the argument/basis that despite the fact that an individual may have a medical condition such that the medical documentation states that the Federal or Postal worker can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, nevertheless, there has not been a showing that a “service deficiency” has occurred.  Often, agencies systematically write up performance appraisals without much thought or consideration; more often, Federal and Postal workers quietly suffer through his or her medical condition, and strive each day to meet the requirements of their duties. 

Whatever the reason for the lack of attention or perception on the part of the supervisor or the agency to recognize that the Federal or Postal worker has not been able to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, such basis for a denial of a disability retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is not a legitimate one, because existence of a “service deficiency” is not the whole story:  if it is found that retention in the job is “inconsistent” with the type of medical condition the Federal or Postal Worker has, then such a finding would “trump” the lack of any service deficiency.  That is not something, however, that the Office of Personnel Management is likely to tell you as they deny your disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement is a Medical Issue

If a Federal or Postal Employee is still on the rolls of the Agency, or if you have not been separated from service for more than 31 days, then the disability retirement application must be routed through your agency before being forwarded to the Office of Personnel Management for processing and review.

If you have been separated from Federal Service — meaning, you have actually been taken off of the rolls of your agency (this does include being on sick leave, or on annual leave, or on leave without pay) — for 31 days or more (but not for more than 1 year, in which case you have lost your right and ability to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, because you have allowed the 1-year statute of limitations to pass by), then you must file your case directly with the Office of Personnel Management in Boyers, PA.

Whether routed through your agency or directly to the Office of Personnel Management, remember that a Federal Disability Retirement application is ultimately a medical issue — not a supervisor’s issue, not an agency issue; it is not determined by your agency; your eligibility is not determined by your supervisor.  It is, essentially, and at its very core, an issue between you, your doctor, and your inability to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Waiting Too Long

My approach to Federal Disability Retirement law is that there are very few, if any, mistakes made by the applicant which cannot be corrected, amended, or explained, especially where the essential ingredients of a “good” case are in existence: a supportive doctor; a position/duties which are incompatible with the type of medical conditions one suffers from, etc.

However, I receive telephone calls periodically where the individual simply has waited “too long”.  Thus, to clarify: If you’ve been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, and you have a Hearing before an Administrative Judge 3 days from today, then you have probably “waited too long” (although, if you can get a postponement, or suspension of the case, there may still be time).

If you’ve been denied by OPM and the Merit Systems Protection Board has already denied your case, then you have probably “waited too long”.  Or, if you have been denied by OPM and by the MSPB and by the Full Board, then you have probably “waited too long”.  I hope that I am getting the point across by overstating the case — while each individual must decided when it is the “right time” to get a lawyer to help in filing for disability retirement cases, and yes, while I take on cases at all stages of the process, the point is quite simple: It is better to have the expertise of an experienced attorney earlier, than later. In most case, that means at the very beginning of the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal OPM Disability Retirement: Be Discerning

In many ways, there is too much information “out there” about anything and everything.  The area of Federal Disability Retirement Law under FERS & CSRS is no different (and, admittedly, the irony is that I may be adding to the compendium of information with my incessant blogs, articles, reflections, etc.).

The real problem, however, is not necessarily the quantity of information, but rather the quality — and for Federal and Postal employees who are attempting to understand all of the issues surrounding Federal Disability Retirement, it is often difficult to categorize and separate and distinguish between “good” information and “bad” information.

For instance, there is the local/district Human Resources personnel for an employee’s Agency.  Agency H.R. offices are made up of “people” — both good and bad, both competent and incompetent; both helpful and downright ornery.  Then, there is the Office of Personnel Management.  There are multiple internet sites, blogs, a plethora of lawyers (though, there are not that many lawyers who are versed in the area of Federal Disability Law).

The bottom-line issue is not one of “quantity” of information, but how to discern between “good” information and “bad” information.  Too often, a person will call me and tell me that “so-and-so told me that X occurs when you file for Federal Disability Retirement — is that true?”

My response is of a standard nature:  I do not sit and argue or contradict some third person whom I have never met, and against a statement which may have been taken out of context.  Instead, I ask my caller, potential clients, and anyone and everyone who reads my writings, to look at the substance of what I write and say; review the consistency of what I have written, and make your own judgment:  Discern well by checking out the facts, and seeing if what others have said about me, or what I have said, rings true.  Be discerning.

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: 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

When Federal Employees Don’t Know about OPM Disability Retirement Benefits and Fall into a Comfort Zone

Many people get confused when they first consult with an attorney about USPS or Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Indeed, before consulting with an attorney, an individual who is faced with a medical condition which (1) is beginning to impact one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s position and (2) will likely last at least a year — such an individual should first take the time to research various websites to “get the facts” about Federal Disability Retirement.

I have had many individuals tell me that they didn’t even know that such a benefit existed; that when they were separated from their U.S. Government gency, the Postal worker or Federal employee was never informed that he or she could file for Federal Disability Retirement.  Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse; if you don’t file for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from service with the Federal Government, you will have lost your right to file — forever.

Furthermore, it is dangerous to “take comfort” in the fact that the Department of Labor/The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs deemed you to be 100% disabled.  That “100%” disabled status may last a lifetime, or it may last only so long as your particular OWCP caseworker is working on your case.  The next caseworker may take it upon him or herself and decide that, Well, no, perhaps you are not 100% disabled, and perhaps sending you to a “Second Opinion” doctor (who, it just so happens, is receiving about 95% of his or her income expounding such “second opinions”) will result in a medical finding that you miraculously “recovered” and are able to go back to work.  Benefits cut off.  You waited a year or more after being separated from Federal Service to find this out, without having filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  You are then, unfortunately, “out of luck”.  Make sure that you file in a timely manner; make sure that you do not take comfort in being on OWCP rolls.  Don’t forget —  Postal or Federal Disability Retirement is an annuity that you can rely upon as a “base income” for your financial security.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire