OPM Disability Retirement: Helpers

Then, of course, there are those Human Resources and OPM personnel who have been, continue to be, and will always be, greater helpers throughout the process in assisting Federal and Postal employees to obtain disability retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.  They are diamonds in a sea of hindrances and obstacles.  And when you come across such an individual, at any stage of the process, one must always express one’s gratitude.

One might argue that they are “just doing their job”, but what such individuals do is clearly beyond the job that they are paid to do.  No only do they assist in the process, but they “humanize” the process; and, especially when a Federal or Postal employee who has a medical disability receives not only assistance in the process, but guidance in providing help to ease and smooth the road to approval, it is indeed a pleasant experience to come across the human touch. A word of thanks to all such Human Resources Personnel.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: How Many Should Be Listed?

I am often asked the question:  How many medical conditions or disabilities should I list in my Applicant’s Statement of Disability (SF 3112A)?  This question is often preceded by another question and answer:  What are your medical disabilities (me to the caller)?  Answer:  I have about ten of them (caller to me).  Let me start out by giving some free advice:  Don’t list ten medical conditions.  Don’t list nine.  Don’t list eight.

When the Office of Personnel Management reviews a Federal Disability Retirement submission under FERS or CSRS, the OPM Representative will review your disability retirement packet until it is approved — and no further.  Approval comes about upon a finding that one of your listed medical conditions disables you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your job.  Now, sometimes OPM will find that a combination of 2 or 3 medical conditions disables you together:  meaning that OPM perhaps found that while a single one did not disable you under their criteria, a combination of two or three did.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that, because the medical conditions and disabilities upon which OPM makes their decision on will be the basis for future continuation of your disability retirement annuity (in the event that you receive a Medical Questionnaire in the future), it is important to limit the listing of one’s medical disabilities on the SF 3112A to those conditions which will likely last for more than 12 months.

Conclusion:  It is important to sequentially prioritize the medical disabilities, in the order of severity, chronicity and duration.  Further, it is important to NOT list the minor medical conditions which, while they may be aggravating, and have impacting symptoms, may not necessarily prevent one from performing the essential elements of your job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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

OPM Disability Retirement: The “Process” at the Reconsideration Stage

It is important to understand that the “process” of filing for Federal Disability Retirement, when it comes to the Second, or “Reconsideration” Stage, encompasses two factual prisms:  (1)  The application has now been denied (obviously, and for whatever reason — most likely because of “insufficient medical evidence”) and (2) it is the stage in the process prior to an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. 

This dual prism of the stage, while self-evident, is important to keep in mind, because it requires a duality of duties:  A.  It requires (for the Disability Retirement Applicant) a duty to show something beyond what has already been shown, while B.  It requires the Office of Personnel Management to be careful in this “process” of review, because if OPM makes a mistake at this stage, then the likelihood is great that they will be required to expend their limited resources to defend a disability retirement case before an Administrative Judge, and if it becomes obvious that the case should have been decided favorably at the Second Stage, it reflects negatively upon the Agency.  OPM is an agency made up of people (obviously); as such, just as “people” don’t like to look foolish, OPM as an Agency made up of people, does not like to look “badly” or “foolish”.  This duality of factual prisms is important to understand when entering into the Second, Reconsideration Stage of the “process”.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Responsibility of the Office of Personnel Management

Perhaps it is an anomaly to even speak about the issue of “the responsibility” of the Office of Personnel Management — at least, from the general consensus of experiences as told by countless individuals who have filed for disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, especially in recent years, one might conclude that OPM is slow to respond, or often refuses to respond at all.  However, to be fair, OPM — as with all other Federal Agencies — is made up of individuals; and the “good” or “bad” of an Agency is entirely dependent upon such individuals.  Most of the disability retirement specialists at OPM are, in my opinion, of the “good” sort.  Without naming names, there are a few of the “bad” sort.  Of course, that says very little, because such a generalized statement could be true of all Federal Agencies.  Moreover, OPM is presently short-staffed, overworked, and way behind on the processing of disability retirement claims.  What used to be a 60-day wait at the initial application stage is taking 90 – 120 days; and at the Reconsideration (2nd) Stage, what used to take 90 days is now taking 120 – 150 days, in many cases.   More than the “time” it takes, however, just remember that the primary responsibility of OPM is to take a careful and serious look at your disability retirement application/packet.  Also, remember that those disability retirement packets which are streamlined, logically constructed, and coherently argued, are the ones which will likely be quickly processed.  Don’t just strap a volume of medical records onto an application and hope for approval; in this day and age, it might be a wise investment to hire an attorney to “streamline” your packet.

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 Federal Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Disabilities

I am often asked, on an initial interview/consultation of a potential client, whether or not psychiatric medical disabilities (Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, panic attacks, Bi-polar disorder, etc.) are “more difficult” to prove than physical disabilities. This question is similar, of course, to the question often asked of certain other kinds of disabilities, like Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other similar (often designated as “auto-immune” disabilities) medical conditions.

In my experience, there is no single generic answer to the question of whether or not a particular medical disability is “more difficult” to prove than another. In my experience, I have gotten approved an application for Major Depression based upon a single-page note from a Psychiatrist; on the converse/inverse experience, I have had cases rejected at the First Stage of the process (but, fortunately, had the same cases approved at the Second, Reconsideration Stage) showing chronic, failed-back syndrome cases where prior surgical discectomies, multiple diagnostic MRIs showing incontrovertible basis for severe and radiating pain, and multiple specialists verifying the client’s clear and irrefutable inability to perform the essential elements of his/her job. In preparing a Federal disability retirement retirement application, my many years of experience has taught me a number of elementary & foundational lessons: First, a clear and concise presentation of providing a direct nexus between the particular medical condition and the type of job that the Federal/Postal employeee performs, is very important; Second, it is very rarely the volume of records which is convincing; rather, it is the quality of the medical report which is paramount; and Third, it often depends upon which OPM Disability Specialist it is assigned to, which sometimes “makes the difference” between approval and denial.

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

Patience During the FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement Process

It is now post-Labor Day Weekend. Summer is essentially over. The Office of Personnel Management will be back in “full force”. The inclination will be to call up OPM and impatiently — imprudently — demand that one’s disability retirement application be reviewed, because it has been sitting on Mr or Ms. X’s desk for the last 90 days. Be cautious of what you request, or demand — because you may get your wish, but with an outcome you do not desire — a denial. I often remark to my clients that if patience is a virtue, then Federal and Postal Workers must be the most virtuous people in the world, because you are the ones who must be most patient — during the years of service you have given, during the process of dealing with a demanding public, and finally, during the process when you need the Federal Government to act quickly — the disability retirement process. Be patient; thereby, be virtuous. Unfortunately, OPM does not have a statutory mandate during the administrative process. If you must call OPM, be courteous in your inquiry, and inquire only if necessary.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire