Federal Disability Retirement: Developing a Case

In most cases, the normal process of disability retirement for the First Stage of the process is anywhere from 6 – 8 months; some fall towards the 6-month range; some take longer than the 8-month range.  The difficulty in most cases is that the potential disability applicant/annuitant obviously wants to get through the process as quickly as possible, most often in order to get a sense of security for the future, that he or she will have the certainty of the Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  All of this is understandable.

The process — of preparing; of submitting; of waiting as it winds through the various Agency channels and finally to Boyers, PA and then to OPM in D.C. — is a process of high anxiety and anticipation.  Sometimes, however, cases must be patiently developed.  By “developed”, I merely mean that, at times, the doctor is not ready to provide the proper medical narrative report, or to state in explicit terms that a person is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job, and that the medical condition will last for at least one (1) year.  Patience with the doctor as different modalities of treatments are applied, is often crucial in the development of a case.  My involvement in a case, even before it is fully developed, is preferred, only if to guide the client as the medical case develops, or — as is often the case — on issues involving how to respond to an Agency which is just as anxious for the whole process to begin and end, as is the client.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

December 3rd, 2009

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Complexity of the Simple

Federal disability retirement law, the statutes and regulations which govern eligibility; the multiple case-law opinions from Administrative Judges and Federal Circuit Judges interpreting the governing statutes and regulations; the lawyers who argue different aspects and attempt to “fine-tune” existing law (including this lawyer) — the entirety results in “making complex” that which was essentially simple.

There is an old adage that the King who declared the first law of his Kingdom was really attempting to reduce the unemployment figures by creating the need for lawyers.  Indeed, “the law” is often made more complex by lawyers.  However, while the multiple issues governing Federal disability retirement law under FERS & CSRS may appear, at first glance, “simple”, it is such simplicity which engenders the complex, precisely because laws which reflect a simple conceptual paradigm require extensive interpretation in order to explain the simpleness of the simplicity.  That is why law itself is complex.  Don’t let the complex confluse you.

As you prepare a disability retirement application, recognize that it is a complex process; at the same time, make sure to explain your medical condition and how it impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal position in an easy-going, simple and straightforward manner. Don’t make it complex; keep it simple; but recognize the complexities.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Actions, Part I

Can adverse agency actions to terminate a Federal employee impact a potential disability retirement application?  The short answer is “yes”, but the longer answer would have to consider multiple factors:  what is the underlying basis of the adverse action?  Does a person’s medical conditions (often psychiatric, cognitive dysfunctions impacting upon less than stellar performance ratings, or perhaps impacting upon the essential elements of one’s job in other ways) explain, in whole or in part, the “adverse” nature of the action?

Also, has there been a “paper trail” established with respect to informing the Agency of medical conditions, such that it can “explain” — again, in whole or in part — the apparent basis of the adverse action?  Is the Agency open to negotiating a material change in the proposed removal — i.e., from one which is adversarial (and therefore would be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board) to one based upon one’s medical inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job (with a stipulation that no appeal will be filed, thereby saving the Agency’s time, resource, and personnel).

It is important to “get involved” in the process of any contemplated Agency action — early.  If the Agency puts an employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), it is time — in fact, overdue — to become active in the future plans for filing a disability retirement application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Thoughts on Specific Disabilities

There is a view that is often proposed that, for certain medical conditions or disabilities, that a different “approach” needs to be undertaken.  Thus, by way of example, certain medical conditions such as (to name just a few, and of course, the list is by no means intended to be exhaustive) Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), various forms of Multiple Chemical/Environmental Sensitivity cases, and even psychiatric conditions such as Bi-polar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, etc. — are often thought to be somehow in a “different” category from (again, by way of example) more “traditional” medical conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Shoulder Impingement Syndrome, Osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs (cervical or lumbar), Torn ACL, Failed Back Syndrome, etc.

Thus, the question sometimes posed is:  should the former types of medical conditions somehow be treated “differently” than the latter, more traditional types of medical conditions?  My answer is, generally, “No”.

First, each individual case must be treated based upon the uniqueness of the particular case.  Second, to file a disability retirement application “differently” because you fear that OPM may not accept your particular kind of medical condition approaches the entire process in a defensive, almost defeatist manner.  Third, because Federal Disability Retirement is based upon the symptoms which are manifested, as opposed to a “category” of a medical condition, and further, how those symptoms and manifested symptomatologies impact the essential elements of one’s job, it is the emphasis upon the nexus between the symptoms and the core elements of the job which should always be emphasized, and not what your medical condition is “called” or “named” as.

Thus, as a general point of legal approach, I prepare all of my clients’ disability retirement applications in a similar vein:  that, regardless of what condition you have been diagnosed with, the symptoms exhibited and clinically identified by your treating doctor impact your ability to perform the essential elements of your job.  This is the best approach to take in all cases.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement & the Reconsideration Process

In the process of applying for Federal Disability retirement under FERS or CSRS, it is the “hope and wish” of each applicant that it will smoothly sail through at the initial stage of the application. However, the reality of the process is that a certain percentage of applications get denied at the initial stage (Stage 1 of the process). It is both discouraging and befuddling to receive a letter from the Office of Personnel Management informing you that your disability retirement application has been “denied”.

You are now required to Request Reconsideration of your case within thirty (30) days of the date of denial, and you must submit additional medical evidence or other supporting documentation within 30 days of requesting such reconsideration (Stage II of the process). It is, indeed, a time of disappointment to receive a denial. It is all the more so when it is unclear as to the basis for the denial. Often, a denial letter will refer to the medical evidence without much commentary beyond acknowledging the submission of a medical report, then in the last paragraph, simply make a declarative statement that the medical evidence submitted “was insufficient” to show that you are disabled. Or, more often than not, the OPM Benefits Specialist will actually mis-state the law by claiming that you have “not shown that you are so disabled as to keep you from the workplace” (no such legal standard is required under disability retirement rules, regulations or case-law).

Whatever the reasons given, it is both discouraging and disheartening to receive a denial letter from OPM. However, it is important to calmly, systematically, and with pinpoint focus reply to the letter of denial — even if it doesn’t seem to make any sense. This is done most effectively by using all of the tools required in persuading eligibility and entitlement to disability retirement benefits: the law; the medical report; the medical records; rational and legal arguments –in short, the “nexus” needed to win.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability retirement: End of Summer and Postal VER

Summer is almost at an end. The Postal Service, through the auspices of the Office of Personnel Management, is offering Voluntary Early Retirement (VER). For many, this is a positive thing; the decision to take the VER should be a financial decision. An analysis comparing the monetary return should be made between what an employee would receive under the VER and under disability retirement; if the financial difference is great, then obviously the employee should consider filing for disability retirement after the VER has been approved.

Remember that the employee would have one (1) year to file for disability retirement benefits, after the individual has been separated from service. Steps should be taken now, however, before accepting/filing for the VER, to establish the medical condition and disability prior to separation from service. This can be done by discussing the medical condition with one’s treating doctor, before the VER is applied for. Such early steps will help ensure the success of a future filing for disability retirement benefits — because the employee must establish that the medical condition impacted one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job prior to separation from Federal Service.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM disability retirement: The very first step

Federal and Postal employees often get a bad rap; yet, what I find in all cases, without exception, is that Federal and Postal employees take great pride in their work. Moreover, they do not want to file for disability retirement — there is a “mental wall” — a desire at all costs not to file for disability retirement, until the physical pain gets too much, or the psychiatric symptoms become too overwhelming.

It is at that critical point — the recognition that he or she is no longer able to continue to work at a particular job; this is the difficult point of self-awareness that must be faced. This is the very first step which must be taken, before one is able to file for disability retirement. And, indeed, I find that Federal and Postal employees are loyal, hard-working, and motivated to work, and to work hard. But there is a point at which one must come to grips with the fact that a particular job A is no longer a good fit for Federal Worker B, with medical conditions C. When these three elements coalesce, it is time for the individual to seriously contemplate filing for disability retirement. Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit which all Federal and Postal employees are entitled to, if he or she qualifies. When the first step needs to be taken, there is never any shame in that — because you have shown your loyalty, your dedication, and your endurance through your medical conditions; there is a point where you must begin to listen to your doctors.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Stating it effectively

Whether an attorney is necessary at the initial stages of filing for OPM Disability Retirement is a question which each individual must answer. One thing is clear, however; there are very few cases where a disability retirement application is “clear-cut” based upon the medical evidence. The reviewing personnel at the Office of Personnel Management are not doctors — though they have a “contract doctor” to review applications.

It is the job of an attorney to be the advocate for the client; as such, the tools which the attorney utilize are: words, and the power of words. In taking over cases at the Reconsideration Stage, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, the mistakes that I see which clients have made prior to representation always involve ‘words’ — either too much, or too few, or stated in the wrong way, or not at all.

Verbosity is rarely an asset or advantage; being succinct is almost always the better way; wise choice of words is a must; the order of delineating the medical disabilities, creating the nexus between the medical disability and the inability to perform one’s job — all of those must be stated forthrightly, descriptively, and with a touch of creativity. Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire