Federal Disability Retirement: OPM’s Detailed Denial

Neither length nor detail constitutes legitimacy.  The spectrum of the types and styles of denial letters issued by the Office of Personnel Management in Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS & CSRS range from a short paragraph under the “Discussion Section”, to 3 – 4 pages of apparent references to doctor’s notes, reports, etc. — with a lengthy lecture about the need for “objective” medical evidence, and about how a particular medical condition “may be” treated by X, Y or Z treatment modalities.

Don’t be fooled.  One may think that, because OPM provides a seemingly “detailed” explanation of why a particular disability retirement application was denied, that such lengthy detail means that it is somehow “substantive”.  In fact, I often find the opposite to be true:  the shorter the denial, the greater the substance.

The lengthy denial letters contain “substance”, all right — but substance of the wrong kind.  They contain:  Mis-statements of the law; mis-statements of the criteria to be applied; inappropriate assertions of medical opinions (contrary to what one might think, the OPM representative does not normally have a medical degree, let alone a law degree), and a host of other “mis-statements”.

Sometimes, the weightier the denial, the more confusing as far as how to respond.  And, perhaps, that is one methodology as to how OPM wants to approach the case:  If it seems long and complicated, maybe the applicant will sigh, give up, and go away.  Don’t.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Accommodation under FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement

The issue of Accommodations is always an important one in FERS & CSRS disability retirement cases. Agencies on the one hand will often attempt to “put together” a set of duties for the employee to perform, and try and keep a productive employee with the Agency.

There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it may even be commendable for the Agency to try and “accommodate” a good employee in such manner. However, such an ad hoc set of duties is not legally an acceptable “accommodation”, and when it comes to filing for disability retirement, it does not preclude a person from being able to file for, and be eligible for, disability retirement. Court cases have upheld this view.

Thus, in Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2001), the Federal Circuit Court delineated and outlined the applicable provisions governing disability retirement, stating that “the pertinent OPM regulation elaborates on the statutory definition by providing that an employee is eligible for disability retirement only if (1) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year; (2) the condition results in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the employee’s position; and (3) the agency is unable to accommodate the disabling condition in the employee’s position or in an existing vacant position.”

Note this last provision, because that is the “all-important language” with respect to the issue of accommodations. What the Court in Bracey stated, is that the term “accommodation” is a legal, precise term, and it means that in order to be a true accommodation, the Agency must do one of two things: Either, provide for working conditions such that an employee can continue to perform all of the essential elements of the position that the employee is occupying, or place that employee into an existing vacant position — at the same pay or grade. This latter point is also important: in Bracey, the Court clearly stated that an employee must be reassigned to a “vacant” position, and not one which was merely “made up”, and the reasoning of the court is clear: the Court Stated:

“We Agree with Mr. Bracey that OPM’s argument fails, because the term “vacant position” in section 8337 refers to an officially established position that is graded and classified, not to an informal assignment of work that an agency gives to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position. 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.” Id. at p. 1359

Further, the Court went on to state that the term “vacant position” means “something that is definite and already in existence rather than an unclassified set of duties devised to meet the needs of a particular employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.” Id. at 1360.

Remember: if you have a medical condition such that you can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of your job, your Agency can certainly give you a set of duties to keep you in that position, and if you can do those duties, and like the type of work provided, that is great. However, if and when a new supervisor comes he, that supervisor can negate such an ad hoc set of duties, and declare that all employees must henceforth be able to do all of the duties of the official position description. That is why an ad hoc set of duties does not constitute an “accommodation” under the law — because what is assigned “ad hoc” can also be taken away “ad hoc”.

Unless a Federal Employee is legally accommodated, he or she has the option of filing for disability retirement. Don’t be fooled by an Agency who says, “Don’t worry; we’ll reduce your workload and let you work a light-duty position.” That “light-duty” position will not necessarily be permanent, especially when the next Supervisor comes along.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Attorney