Discretionary Decisions Made by Federal Disability Lawyers

As an OPM Disability attorney, I am often asked questions by people of which I am unable to answer.  They are not questions concerning “the law” underlying Federal Disability Retirement, but rather questions which go to my “professional discretion” as an attorney in putting together a Federal Disability Retirement packet, prepared to go forth to the Office of Personnel Management.

By “professional discretion” questions, I mean those questions which go to making decisions and choices concerning medical reports, percentage ratings received from the Veterans Administration; permanency ratings received from Second Opinion or Referee doctors, or the fact that one has reached “maximum medical improvement” and is now “permanent and stationary”, and whether to use such collateral sources of medical documentation in putting together a disability retirement packet.

The practice of law is not all objective and straight-forward; part of the “practice” of law is of an art form, based upon one’s experience, and professional discretion sharpened by repetitive experiences in working with the Office of Personnel Management and in representing Federal and Postal employees before the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Further, there are some questions which I answer only for those whom I represent.  I am happy to provide general information about the process of filing for federal disability.  For those whom I represent, however, I reserve for them the art of practicing Federal Disability Retirement law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Long, Longer & Longest View

I have often spoken of the need to take the “long-term” view in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS — both in terms of having patience for the inherently long process in terms of time, as well as in terms of preparing a case for not just the First Stage of the process, but further, for the second Reconsideration Stage, as well as for an Appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

This “long-term” view is meant to prepare a potential applicant for what it means to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; to not be overly concerned if you are denied at the first, or even the second stage of the process; and to be prepared financially to weather the “long haul”.  In short, it is meant to prepare the potential applicant for the long, and longer, view of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

It is also necessary, however, to prepare one’s self for the “longest” view — that of maintaining and keeping safe the disability retirement benefits once it is approved — by preparing to be randomly selected every two years or so with a periodic “review” with a Medical Questionnaire.  The Medical Questionnaire is an innocuous looking form, asking for an “update”, and giving you 90 days to respond.

Be cautious.  Be aware.  Take it seriously.

Don’t wait for the 89th day to begin responding to it.  None of my clients who have gotten his or her Federal Disability Retirement benefits has ever lost it; people who have gotten Federal Disability Retirement benefits on their own and have later lost the benefit, have come to me to regain it; I have been successful in recovering the benefit, in every case.  However, it is not always easy — if only because the disability annuitant initially thought that it was an “easy-looking” form.

Preparation for the “longest view” begins not upon receipt of the Medical Questionnaire; it begins at the very, very beginning — when one first decides to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The OWCP Paradigm

One may choose OWCP benefits because, financially, it pays more (75% non-taxed for an individual with dependents; 66 2/3% for a single individual) than a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  It is a pragmatic paradigm to rely upon for the immediate time-frame; however, it is not a practical paradigm for the future.  Obviously, one should obtain an approval from the Office of Personnel Management for one’s disability retirement, concurrently with receiving OWCP temporary total disability payments.  However, upon an approval from OPM, you need to elect between the two — because you cannot be paid by both concurrently.  Many people (rightly) choose to remain on OWCP and keep the OPM Disability Retirement annuity in “limbo or annuity purgatory” — again, because OWCP pays more. 

However, as a paradigm for the future, it should not be relied upon forever.  This, because OWCP is not a retirement system.  Instead, it is a system of allowing for payment during a time of occupational disease or injury, for a person to be able to recover from such an injury.  While on OWCP benefits, however, you cannot work at another job (unlike under FERS & CSRS disability retirement); in fact, if you engage in too many physical activities similar to those which you might do at work, you may find that you will be criminally charged for “fraud”.  This has happened to many people, and it should frighten anyone who is on OWCP.  In such cases, you will often find that you have been videotaped over hundreds of hours — but the “edited” version upon which OWCP investigators charge you with, will be a video clip of about 5 minutes.  Next:  Why OWCP is not a good paradigm for one’s future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Agency Interaction

Federal Agencies often act like little fiefdoms.  This is not necessarily a negative thing; each agency is an independent entity, and each has a province of responsibilities which it must carry out and execute according to the statutory mandate provided by Congress.  As independent entities, each agency acts without coordination or regard to other agencies.

Thus, while approval for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration will mean an offset of monetary payments under FERS, such interaction between the two agencies simply goes to the financial payments — not to the substantive issues of approval or disapproval of a disability retirement claim.  Similarly, while receipt of temporary total disability payments from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs means that you cannot concurrently receive payments under CSRS or FERS disability retirement (unless you are receiving a scheduled award from OWCP/DOL), the substantive basis of approval or denial of a claim rarely overlaps.  This is because each agency has its own independent criteria for eligibility — meaning that, for Social Security, the “disability” has a higher standard of “total disability”, whereas under FERS & CSRS, it is a lower standard of “inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”.  Similarly, with OWCP/DOL, the issue of “causality” and whether it is “work-related” is often the important component of consideration.

All of this is not to say, however, that an approval of a disability benefit from one agency,or a report from a doctor considered for one benefit, should not be used by the applicant for submission to another agency.  Indeed, this should be done — but carefully, and with thoughtfulness.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Be Careful

As part of a Federal or Postal employee’s process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, one may have to negotiate, respond to, or fight against an unfair Agency’s attempt to remove the Federal or Postal employee — based upon factors other than what is truly the underlying basis — of his or her medical inability to perform the essential elements of the Federal job.

For whatever reason — of incompetence, of pure unkindness, of personal vendettas, etc. —  Agencies will often refuse to remove an individual for the administratively neutral reason (by “neutral”, to mean that it is not an “adverse” action) of “medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job”.  Instead, they will often revert to other reasons:  “excessive absences”, “AWOL”, “excessive LWOP”; “violation of a PIP”, and other such overtly misleading reasons.

When, the truth of the matter is/was, the Federal or Postal employee was sick, has a medical condition, and could not come to work because of medical reasons.  Be careful.  Fight the removal action.  Don’t accept the unfair basis.  File an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Remember, a removal for medical inability to perform the essential elements of the job can help you get an approval in a disability retirement application.  Better yet, hire an attorney who will fight for you.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Why is mine denied?

There are always multiple (unverified) stories of people who have filed for Federal Disability retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS, based upon what appears to be a “minor” medical condition (at least “minor” in comparison to the medical conditions which were rejected by the Office of Personnel Management per a denial letter), which was approved; yet, you filed a Federal Disability Retirement application based upon multiple major medical conditions, which was denied.  Why me?

Remember that “fairness” is not the criteria in determining the viability of a disability retirement application.

Comparisons of medical conditions with other applicants or co-workers rarely provide any fruitful insight; the point is, the “other guy” got his disability retirement application approved, and you did not.  It may be several factors beyond your control:  Your Supervisor tried to “get back at you” by declaring that all reasonable accommodations were provided; the OPM representative which was assigned to your case was overworked and wanted to clear some of the workload, and yours was one of them; one of your doctors made statements which came perilously close to making your case one of “situational disability”.

Whatever the reasons, you should not worry about factors beyond your control; instead you need to focus upon those factors over which you do have control:  You need to have a strategy on how you will counter the initial denial.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire