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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Denials II

It is, indeed, frustrating when a governmental agency makes life-impacting decisions which seem to be spurious and capricious. A review of a disability retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is supposed to be thorough, with sound reasoning and a fair application of the law. And, in all fairness, the majority of cases appear to meet that standard. It may well be, of course, that since all approval letters of disability retirement applications are standard templates, with boilerplate language and instructions, and since most of my cases are approved at the first level, the impression left is that OPM does a good job in reviewing the cases.

When a case is disapproved, however, it is often the case that the denial is based upon factors which defy logic, which appear to have little or no rational basis, and which selectively focuses upon a narrow reading of the medical reports and records. Thus, often the OPM Representative will take a statement out of context, and declare that the doctor stated X when a full reading of the medical report shows that the doctor actually stated Y. This is unfortunate, and does not reflect the careful review, analysis, and fair rendering of a decision made by most OPM representatives, but occurs often enough to be of concern. On the bright side, however, is that there is always the ability to take it completely out of the hands of OPM, after a second denial — and allow an administrative judge to review it objectively, at the Merit Systems Protection Board. That is why the MSPB was created and exists — to have a third party, objective body review the decision-making process of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement Denials

When your OPM Medical claim is denied by the OPM Disability Retirement Specialist

 

A received letter from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management quashes the Federal employee’s plans for the future. The deep, emotional disappointment is understandable because it prevents the employee to secure a stream of income; to have the recuperative period in which to recover from a progressively deteriorating medical condition; and generally to be able to “move on” in life.  As all rejections have a negative impact upon a person — in terms of emotional, psychological as well as practical consequences — so an OPM denial letter is seen as a rejection of a compendium of submitted proof concerning a Federal OPM Disability Retirement application.

It is not so much that the denial itself obviously represents “bad news” (that is difficult enough), but again for the OPM Disability Retirement applicant, it casts a long and foreboding shadow upon one’s financial and economic future.  For, obviously, the income from the disability annuity is being relied upon; the applicant filed for Federal disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS based upon the assumption that it would be approved, and the future calculation of economic and financial stability was based upon the obvious assumption of an approval.

Long-term plans are made based upon the assumption of approval.  Further, it doesn’t help that the basis for the denial, as propounded by the Office of Personnel Management, is often confusing, self-contradictory, and without a rational basis.

It is often as if the OPM Medical Retirement representative just threw in a few names, referred to some doctor’s reports, and essentially denied it with a selective, almost pre-determined view towards denying the claim.  This is unfortunate, because the Office of Personnel Management is under a mandate to make its decision based upon a careful and thorough review of the applicant’s supporting documention.

However, when an OPM Disability Retirement denial is received, one must fight against the initial feelings of defeat and dismay; work is yet to be done, and a view towards the future must always be kept at the forefront.  A time to give up is not now; it is time to fight onward, and to move forward.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Filing II

People often come to me at the 2nd (Reconsideration) Stage, or the 3rd (Merit Systems Protection Board) Stage, and ask that I correct the mistakes made in the initial filing. Most mistakes can be corrected. Of course, it would have been better if the Applicant had done it properly the first time, for once the Office of Personnel Management views something which should not have been submitted, it cannot be easily retracted — only further explained.

There are, moreover, certain mistakes which cannot be “explained away” — such as deliberate omissions or deceptions. Thus, if the Office of Personnel Management gets the idea that there is an element of deceptiveness in a disability retirement application — either through omission or deliberate avoidance of an issue — then it becomes a difficult case to win. Honesty is always the best policy, and no Disability Retirement applicant should ever engage in any act of covering up any information. This is conceptually different from emphasizing the elements in a disability retirement application which favor an approval, as opposed to de-emphasizing those elements which tend to obscure the primary elements of an application. Such artful emphasis/de-emphasis should always be a part of every disability retirement application, coordinating the Applicant’s Statement of Disability with supporting medical documentation, to convey a consistent “whole” to the Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: The Filing I

Never be deceptive in your filing. Always be truthful. To be deceptive or untruthful will harm your credibility, your case, and ultimately, may defeat your ability to obtain disability retirement benefits. Now, there is a conceptual distinction between being “truthful” and emphasizing certain issues of your case, while leaving certain other issues as secondary and less prominent in the documents & supportive papers filed.

Thus, to take a rather crude example, while everyone in the world spends a great deal of his or her life in the restroom, we rarely — if ever — talk about such events. Is it because we are not being “truthful”? No — instead, while it is an issue which is not emphasized, it is not something which we are also being deceptive about.

Thus, with respect to disability retirement issues, one should never deliberately attempt to mislead, hide, or otherwise “expunge” certain aspects of the disability retirement application. At the same time, however, those aspects which are not very helpful, or which may harm your case, should not be placed in bold-type or underlined in red. Wherever possible, those aspects which will weaken your case, should simply be de-emphasized — but never deliberately hidden.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Generic Denial

Often, cases are mishandled not because of the “present” mistake, but because the case was never prepared for the “long-term” event.  Let me elaborate and explain. Obviously, an applicant for disability retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS wants to win the case at the earliest stage of the process.  The attorney who is handling any such disability retirement case, similarly, would like to “win” the case at the earliest stage possible.  However, sometimes that is simply not going to be the case. 

In an initial denial, it is often important to not only address the case for the Reconsideration Stage, but also to prepare the case for the next stage — the Merit Systems Protection Board (and, similarly, in preparing an application for Disability Retirement, it is important to prepare such an application not only for the initial review at OPM, but also for the Reconsideration Stage).  By this, I mean that, because there is at least a “possibility” that the disability retirement application will be denied again at the Reconsideration Stage, it is important to point out the deficiencies, the lack of clarity, the inadequate reasoning, the outright lies and mis-statements which the Office of Personnel Management may have engaged in as part of the “Discussion” Section of the denial letter.  Often, while OPM may give some “lip-service” to make it appear as if your case was thoroughly reviewed, a closer reading (on second thought, it need not even be a closer reading) clearly shows that OPM did a shabby job in denying a case.  It is what I ascribe as OPM’s “generic denial” — a denial so devoid of any particularity or care as to reveal a complete lack of proper administrative review of the case.  Such lack of proper administrative review is what needs to be shown; it needs to be shown because, if OPM denies the case again, then it is advantageous to the applicant to have the Administrative Law Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board see that he will be hearing a case which may not have been necessary — but for the lack of diligence on the part of OPM.

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

OPM Disability Retirements: Groundless Denials of FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement Applications

One would assume that when a disability retirement application has been reviewed by someone at the Office of Personnel Management, and a decision of denial has been rendered, that such a decision will — at a bare minimum — be based upon a legally sufficient ground. In other words, that the legal criteria asserted in the decision will be correctly delineated.

Unfortunately, that is too often not the case. In fact, many of the legal claims asserted by the Office of Personnel Management have no justification in law, and are exaggerated at best, and a mis-statement of the applicable laws, at worst. But for disability retirement applicants who are unrepresented, the individual may well read the decision, believe what the decision states, and become convinced that the burden is too onerous to overcome, and fail to request reconsideration in the case, discouraged that he or she will never be able to meet the legal burden imposed in the initial denial.

Thus, for instance, when an OPM denial letter states that there was “no evidence showing hallucinations, delusions or other symptoms of psychosis,” and therefore the disability retirement is denied, one might conclude: “Since I don’t have those conditions, I must not be qualified for disability retirement.” Wrong! Or, when OPM says: “There was no evidence of hospitalization or the need for such treatment,” one might become completely discouraged and say, “Oh, disability retirement requires that my medical condition is such that it requires hospitalization in order to qualify, and therefore I cannot qualify“. Wrong! Such overstated and exaggerated claims by the Office of Personnel Management are commonplace, and unnecessarily place a burden upon disability retirement applicants through mis-statements of the law. Never allow an OPM mis-statement of the law to persuade you to abandon your case; instead, seek competent legal counsel to explain what the law of disability retirement really is, and proceed from here.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM decisions of denial in FERS & CSRS disability retirement case

There are two elements: competency/knowledge, on the one hand, and authority/power on the other. When the two come together, we then have the combination resulting in a reasoned decision. It is indisputable that an Agency has the authority and power to make administrative decisions. On the other hand, if the Agency makes a decision without the proper competency or knowledge, then it can become a problem.

In reviewing a denial letter from the Office of Personnel Management in disability retirement cases, what is most disturbing are the following: First, 90% of the denial letter is based upon a computer template. The references to dates, medical reports & records reviewed, etc., comprise the remainder of the 10%.

Now, that is not to complain that OPM should or must “reinvent the wheel” each time it makes a decision — indeed, the fact that much of the decision is boilerplate, template language is not that disturbing. What is, disturbing, however, is when — under the pretense of competency and knowledge, it makes blatant mis-statements of the law.

Some of the mis-statements are: “The medical documentation does not show that you are totally disabled from performing your job.” There is no requirement under the law that a person needs to be “totally disabled”. Or: “We are unable to make a determination because of the lack of objective medical evidence.” Medical evidence does not need to be “objective” as opposed to a doctor’s reasoned medical opinions. Or: “Fibromyalgia is a condition which waxes and wanes.” OPM is not a medical facility and has no business making medical determinations or declarations.

The authority and power of an Agency must always be used in the context of competency and knowledge, and the Office of Personnel Management must make its decisions based upon the prevailing case laws, statutes and regulations which govern it. It is the job of a disability retirement attorney to point out such misstatements of law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire