OPM Disability Retirement: The Case of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is one of those medical conditions that the Office of Personnel Management systematically “targets” as a condition which is prima facie “suspect”. This is despite the fact that there are cases which implicitly “admonish” OPM from engaging in the type of arbitrary reasoning of denying a disability retirement application because they “believe” that “no objective medical evidence” has been submitted, or that the “pain” experienced (diffuse as it might be) is merely “subjective”, or that the chronicity of the pain merely “waxes and wanes”, and a host of multiple other unfounded reasonings. Yet, cases have already placed a clear boundary around such arbitrary and capricious reasonings.

A case in point, of course, is Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit case, decided on November 26, 2007. In that case, it clearly circumscribes the fact that OPM can no longer make the argument that an Applicant’s disability retirement application contains “insufficient medical evidence” because of its lack of “objective medical evidence”. This is because there is no statute or regulation which “imposes such a requirement” that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability. 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'”, then the application is eligible for consideration. Further, the Court went on to state that it is “legal error for either agency (OPM or the MSPB) to reject submitted medical evidence as entitled to no probative weight at all solely because it lacks so-called ‘objective’ measures such as laboratory tests.” Statues are passed for a reason: to be followed by agencies. Judges render decisions for a reason: for agencies to follow. Often, however, agencies lag behind statutes and judicial decisions. It is up the an applicant — and his or her attorney — to make sure that OPM follows the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Federal Disability Retirement: When the Office of Personnel Management Fails to Apply the Law

Federal disability retirement law is often a frustrating process. On the one hand, for an attorney, it can be a professionally satisfying area of law to practice because the end result — obtaining a benefit for an individual who has shown long years of loyal service to working for the Federal Government; providing a source of income for a person who has been impacted by a medical condition; reaching a successful conclusion to a process: these factors are always satisfying for a practicing attorney. On the other hand — this is an administrative process; it is an area called, “Administrative Law”, and at least at the initial stages of the process, the Attorney handling such a case is dealing with non-attorneys at the Office of Personnel Management.

In other areas of practice, there is often an “equality of competence” (presumably), where attorneys compete or engage in adversarial battle with other attorneys. With Disability Retirement Law, however, the “Disability Specialist” at the Office of Personnel Management often has absolutely no clue as to the current laws governing disability retirement. They simply apply a template and, if a specific case goes outside of that preconceived “template”, then the OPM Representative will often deny the case. Now, in all fairness, most of the people at OPM have a fair idea of the current law, and more importantly, are open to being informed, educated and persuaded by an attorney that a particular case, with its various wrinkles (and all cases have their unique wrinkles), should be approved because of compliance with a particular statute, a relevant case-law, or a particular regulatory statement. In some particular cases, however, when an OPM representative makes a decision based upon complete ignorance of the prevailing disability retirement laws, one can only throw up one’s hands, and hope that the Reconsideration Specialist will have greater knowledge — or, at the very least, is open to being educated on the proper application of the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirements: The Office of Personnel Management

I once heard a pastor make a rather unremarkable statement, but profound nevertheless in its simplicity and truth: “Where there are people, there are problems.” To assume that an Agency will make a proper, objective and legally sufficient decision all the time, most of the time, or even more often than not, is probably asking too much. The Office of Personnel Management, as with any Agency, is an entity — a large bureaucracy — made up of “people”. Yes, there are laws governing disability retirement; yes, there are rules, regulations and “criteria” which form the foundational basis for the “decision-making” part of evaluating each disability retirement case; but more profoundly, there are “people” who review, interpret, and apply those rules, regulations, and legal criteria in determining the final outcome: approval or disapproval of a claim.

That is why it is important in “how” a case is presented, as much as “what” it is that is being presented. With people, there are personalities; with personalities, there are variances in how any given OPM person reviews a case and makes a decision, from one to another. Where an attorney can be most helpful, is to “elevate” a case out of being merely one case among many, to making a presentation of a case on three fundamental levels: (1) the seriousness of the medical condition, (2) the legal sufficiency of the disability retirement application, and (3) persuasion by argumentation that it would be a mistake — a misapplication of the legal criteria — to disapprove a disability retirement application. All in all, this comes down to one profound issue: Where there are people, there are problems; and where there are problems, it is often a good idea to make the best presentation possible, at the outset of a disability retirement case.

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: Failing to follow “Reasonable Treatment”

In fighting to prove one’s eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, a recurring argument which the Office of Personnel Management often alleges is that an applicant failed to follow the treatment recommendations of the treating doctor.

Such an argument can prove to be fatal to an applicant’s case, but it is good to know the parameters of what it means to “fail to follow” reasonable medical treatment.  For instance, non-compliance with a medication regimen can be fatal to a case.  Thus, OPM will successfully argue that an individual who has failed to follow the medication regimen of the treating doctor has thus failed to show that the individual could have returned to work precisely because non-compliance with a medication regimen would logically undermine the potential efficacy of the medical treatment.

On the other hand, invasive surgery is normally not required, and the Merit Systems Protection Board has stated that an “estimated probability of success of future surgery is speculative, just as a prediction as to the worsening of a condition may be, and will not necessarily provide a basis for denial of a disability annuity.”

These are two light-posts on the spectrum of what is deemed “reasonable treatment”.  Most issues concerning reasonable medical treatment fall somewhere between these two extremes, and the best course of action (obviously) is never to self-treat, or make medical decisions without the input of your treating doctor.  Indeed, to not follow the medication regimen of your doctor is a manner of self-treatment; on the other hand, to elect not to have surgery because of the speculative success/failure rate is a reasonable decision which the Merit Systems Protection Board will not second-guess.  What falls in-between these two extremes should always be with the guidance of “reasonableness”, in close consultation with your treating doctor.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire