Federal Employee Disability Retirement: Discretion in a Response (Part 2)

In responding to an initial denial of a Federal Disability Retirement application before the Office of Personnel Management, it is important to remain professional, and not to “overload” the response with unnecessary or otherwise irrelevant responses.

Initial anger and disbelief over the selective criticisms contained in an OPM denial letter should not be reflected in a response to the denial.  Why not?  Because there is a good possibility that the case may be denied a second time, and it may appear before the Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Don’t write things to OPM that you will regret having an Administrative Judge — one who may be deciding your case — look at and read.  Thus, the “first rule”:  never write an immediate response back, because your anger and emotional disbelief will show itself.

If you need to “get rid” of your anger and expiate the emotionalism, then write your emotional response on a separate piece of paper, then set it aside.  Your “real” response will come later — when you can with a rational perspective, review the unfair and selectively biased denial letter, and begin to compose the serious response that your case deserves.  Or, better yet, get your attorney to do it.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Bruner Presumption – Agency Actions, Part II

One must never misunderstand the law and its application.  This is true in any legal arena of every area of law; when it comes to Federal Disability Retirement law, the misunderstanding of an application of law can have direct and irreparable consequences:  the failure to secure disability retirement benefits and, therefore, the financial security for one’s future.

The “Bruner Presumption” is one such application of law which is often misunderstood.  Without revealing all of its proper applications, it can (and is) often misunderstood to be equivalent to a “presumption of innocence” — but that would be wrong.  The Bruner Presumption comes about as a result of an Agency Action — of removal based upon the employee’s medical inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.

With or without the Bruner Presumption in Federal Disability Retirement law, the “Burden of Production” — i.e., of the medical documentation, the factual establishment that the Agency is unable to accommodate the individual — still rests and remains with the applicant.  One must never think that the applicability of the Bruner Presumption makes a case a “slam dunk” of any sort.

This is especially so where we are talking about those medical conditions which are often viewed as “suspect” by the Office of Personnel Management — such as Fibroymyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity cases, etc (by “suspect”, however, I do not mean to imply that such medical conditions make it harder for an applicant to get it approved; rather, it merely requires that the one who is preparing such an application, do it properly, thoroughly, and with legal force).

Remember that the initial, and continuing, burden of production always remains with the applicant; what the Bruner Presumption merely does is to “shift” some of the weight of the burden of proof over to OPM, and in the event of an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, of placing a Federal Disability Retirement case into a more favorable light with the Administrative Judge.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Long View

What I find when individuals have attempted to file on their own, and get it rejected, is the lack of preparing for the “long view.” Many people hear stories about how “such and such” obtained a disability retirement approval for “far less than the medical conditions I have.”

Fair enough. Those stories may be true (I never engage in a discussion about the validity or truth of such stories; they are what they are — stories); nevertheless, there are multiple factors which are considered at each stage of the process of filing for disability retirement: Who the OPM Specialist is that will be reviewing an application; the subjective application of which criteria are applied in a given case; the personal and professional differences that arise between different bureaucrats at the Office of Personnel Management (no, don’t believe in the story that there is an “objective” methodology of applying the law when reviewing each disability retirement application); and multiple other factors, including whether or not your particular disability retirement packet was reviewed by someone at the Office of Personnel Management when he or she had a “bad day”.

To counter all of the multiple factors over which we don’t have any control, one must always take the “long view” — the view that it may take two denials, and end up before a Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board. At that point, it is important for the Judge to see how well-documented the case has been prepared; that legal arguments have already shown that OPM was unreasonable in its initial decision and its Reconsideration Denial; and how, despite additional attempts at fulfilling OPM’s requests for additional medical documentation, that OPM continued to be unreasonable. By preparing for the “long view”, a disability retirement packet not only has the best chance of getting it approved in the “short run”, but also at the Merit Systems Protection Board.Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: More on the MSPB Stage

While I believe that an attorney versed in the Federal Disability Retirement process can be helpful at all stages of the process, at the Third Stage — the Merit Systems Protection Board stage — the input, assistance, and representation of an experienced attorney can be invaluable.  This is essentially the “last” stage of the three-stage process.  Of course, there are two additional stages, but both concern an appeal — in the event that the Administrative Judge rules against the disability retirement applicant at the MSPB.

During the process at the MSPB, the Appellant will have what is called a “Prehearing Conference”.  At such a conference (held over the telephone), the Judge will go over with both parties (the applicant and the OPM representative), certain basic essentials about the law, to include the standard of proof, witness list, preliminary legal matters, etc.  What is important at such a Prehearing Conference is to carefully listen to the Judge.  As each Judge is human, and thus different, it is important to listen and carefully be attentive to what the Judge is looking for.  If more medical documentation is needed, exactly what is the Judge looking for?  If there is a concern about a certain legal issue — say, the issue of accommodation — what exactly is the Judge concerned about?  By being attentive to the questions of the Judge, and fashioning the Hearing to address those concerns, the applicant greatly enhances his or her chances of winning at this crucial stage of the process.

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

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: Beyond the MSPB

Not all cases that should be won, are won. No one can win 100% of the time; think about it — even the best Major League Baseball players strike out at least 2 out of every 3 at-bats. Most strike out every 3 out of 4 times. Fortunately, I am able to pass through a high percentage of my clients at Stages 1 or 2 of the Disability Retirement process, and that is how it should be.

Every now and again, however, a case must go to the Merit Systems Protection Board; and out of the small number that must get to that point, an even smaller number goes before an Administrative Judge who is clearly anti-employee, and ignores the law and sides with the Office of Personnel Management. Fortunately, most MSPB judges are fair and understand that disability retirement laws favor, for the most part, approval of disability retirement benefits. In those instances where, for whatever reason, a case has been denied at Stages 1 & 2, and the MSPB Judge completely ignores the strong and unequivocal testimony of the doctor, then there is still a good shot at winning the case at the 4th level — a Petition for Full Review.

Such a Stage must be approached by pointing out the legal deficiencies and, indeed, the Hearing Judge’s complete mis-application of the law. It must be done delicately and respectfully, however, because you are essentially asking that the Full Board (a panel of 3 Administrative Judges) reverse one of the Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board — to declare that the Administrative Judge “erred” in applying the law. It is possible to do — but it must be done with care, respect, and technical expertise.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The “nexus” between the Reconsideration Stage and the Merit Systems Protection Board

It is an accepted fact that there is a “psychological” aspect to almost everything in life, and this is no less true in the field of disability retirement law.  The “psychological” aspect is the nexus, or bridge, from the Reconsideration Stage to the Merit Systems Protection Board.  From OPM’s viewpoint, this is the last chance to make a decision on a case, before it is taken out of the hands — and therefore “control” — of the Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, OPM wants to be able to “justify” that its decision was reasonable, and legally-based and legally sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of an Administrative Judge.   From the Applicant’s viewpoint, it is a chance to show that OPM was unreasonable for not approving the case.

While it is true that all cases which come before the MSPB are heard de novo (meaning, anew, without regard to prior decisions by OPM), OPM nevertheless never wants to be viewed as ignoring the law and appearing unreasonable, and the Applicant wants OPM to appear unreasonable in the face of the medical evidence already provided.  This is the psychology behind trying to convince OPM to approve a case at the Reconsideration Stage.  Thus, at the Reconsideration Stage, it is important to cite applicable law to OPM, to corner them into a position of appearing unreasonable if the disability retirement application is denied.  On the other hand, the reasonings and underpinning of foundational bases provided in Reconsideration Decisions are often far more superior and accurate than those handed down at the Initial Stage.  In any event, always remember that there is a “psychological” aspect to everything, and it is the duty of an attorney to identify it, use it to the best advantage possible, and cite the appropriate law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire