CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Interaction with OWCP/DOL

I receive calls periodically as to whether it is of greater advantage to remain on Worker’s Comp (Department of Labor, Office of Workers Compensation Program — “OWCP”) as opposed to going out on OPM Disability Retirement.  My answer remains the same:  OWCP is not a retirement system; OPM disability retirement is indeed that — it is a retirement, where one is separated from Federal Service, and you go out and do what you want to with your life.  Every decision has consequences; every act which we engage in has inherent residual effects, and we have to balance such effects and consequences.  Thus, while OWCP benefits pay a higher rate (75% tax free with a dependent; 66 2/3% tax free without a dependent), there are restrictions:  You must comply with any and all requests (or demands) of the Department of Labor; you cannot go out and get another job, or start another career — because you are deemed “disabled” and are being paid for it.  On the other hand, OPM disability retirement pays less (for FERS, 60% the first year, 40% every year thereafter), but you have the freedom of retirement — you may go out and start another career, and make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays, without losing your disability annuity.  These — and many other factors — are some things to consider when weighing the differences between OPM disability retirement, and receiving OWCP/DOL benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Social Security Disability

Under the rules concerning FERS disability retirement applications, one must file for Social Security Disability.  As most people already know, there is an interaction/offset between Social Security Disability benefits and FERS disability benefits, if both are approved (100% offset in the first year of annuity, 60% offset every year thereafter).  One would assume (dangerously, as it turns out), that if an application for Social Security disability is approved, that it would automatically render an approval under FERS disability retirement a “sure” thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The fact that Social Security has a higher standard of proof — where one must be considered “totally disable” as opposed to (under the legal standards for FERS) “disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”) — one would think that, legally and logically, if you have met the higher legal standard of proof, then the lesser standard would have been automatically met.  Unfortunately, because the two standards are applied in different, independent agencies, the fact that Social Security Disability benefits are awarded is not a guarantee that the FERS disability retirement application will automatically be granted.  However, there is clear case-law stating that OPM must consider the approval by SSD as one factor among many in the consideration of FERS disability retirement applications.  It is important to cite such cases in support of your application for FERS disability retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: Perennial Issues

Like perennial plants, some issues continue to repeatedly crop up; once planted, they keep showing up in various question-forms.  The one which needs to be addressed, again, is the “1-year” issue:  there are actually two (2) questions which keep resurrecting themselves: A.  Filing a disability retirement application within 1 year of separation from service, and B. A medical condition which must last for a minimum of one year. 

As to the former:  The statute of limitations begins to toll when a person has been officially separated from Federal Service.  This means that the Agency must take you off of the Federal rolls.  If you continue to receive a paycheck, you are likely not separated (unless, of course, it is some form of a severance paycheck); if you receive a paycheck with “0-balances”, you are still not likely separated. If you are injured and you haven’t worked for a year, but you have not received notification that you have been separated from Federal Service, the 1-year mark has likely not begun.  On the other hand, if your SF-50 or PS Form 50 states that you are separated, then you are separated.  At that point, you have one (1) year to file your Federal Disability Retirement application. 

As to the latter (Issue “B” herein):  In most cases, it is a prospective issue.  It doesn’t mean that you must “have been” medically unable to work for a year; it doesn’t mean that you have to wait around for a year, out of work and penniless, for a year; it doesn’t mean that you must be on OWCP or on LWOP or on sick leave for a year — instead, it means that your medical condition must last for at least a year.  In other words, as is the case with most medical conditions, after a couple of months, your doctor should have an opinion — a “prognosis” — of how long your medical condition which impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your job, will likely last, within reasonable medical certainty.  Indeed, since the Federal Disability Retirement process often takes from 8 – 10 months (from start to finish) to obtain an approval, by the end of the process, the full year will likely have occurred anyway.  In other words, you don’t need to wait around for a year to show that you can’t perform the essential elements of your job; indeed, that would be foolish. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

When Federal Employees Don’t Know about OPM Disability Retirement Benefits and Fall into a Comfort Zone

Many people get confused when they first consult with an attorney about USPS or Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  Indeed, before consulting with an attorney, an individual who is faced with a medical condition which (1) is beginning to impact one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s position and (2) will likely last at least a year — such an individual should first take the time to research various websites to “get the facts” about Federal Disability Retirement.

I have had many individuals tell me that they didn’t even know that such a benefit existed; that when they were separated from their U.S. Government gency, the Postal worker or Federal employee was never informed that he or she could file for Federal Disability Retirement.  Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse; if you don’t file for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from service with the Federal Government, you will have lost your right to file — forever.

Furthermore, it is dangerous to “take comfort” in the fact that the Department of Labor/The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs deemed you to be 100% disabled.  That “100%” disabled status may last a lifetime, or it may last only so long as your particular OWCP caseworker is working on your case.  The next caseworker may take it upon him or herself and decide that, Well, no, perhaps you are not 100% disabled, and perhaps sending you to a “Second Opinion” doctor (who, it just so happens, is receiving about 95% of his or her income expounding such “second opinions”) will result in a medical finding that you miraculously “recovered” and are able to go back to work.  Benefits cut off.  You waited a year or more after being separated from Federal Service to find this out, without having filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  You are then, unfortunately, “out of luck”.  Make sure that you file in a timely manner; make sure that you do not take comfort in being on OWCP rolls.  Don’t forget —  Postal or Federal Disability Retirement is an annuity that you can rely upon as a “base income” for your financial security.

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