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

OPM Disability Retirement: Each Step is a New Review

There are only one of several ways in which a Federal disability retirement application under FERS or CSRS can be lost: Either a Judge at the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals renders a final opinion denying a Federal or Postal Employee his or her disability retirement, or the Federal or Postal employee simply gives up.  As to the former:  Even then, if the Federal or Postal employee has not been separated from service for more than one (1) year, he or she may file a new application for OPM Disability Retirement.

Thus, we are left with the latter:  a disability retirement applicant simply gives up.  By “giving up” is meant:  the next step is not taken; the time-frame within which to file a Request for Reconsideration or an appeal is allowed to “lapse”; or, if an appeal is taken, it is done with resignation and surrender.  Nothing good can come out of such an approach.  Each step of the process in a Federal Disability Retirement case must be attacked aggressively.  Each step must be looked at as a potential place for a new review.

Think about it in reverse:  If you don’t take the next step, then nothing good will certainly happen, so what is there to lose?  Indeed, there are times when a client hires me to file a Request for Reconsideration or an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and the mere filing of my appearance into the case persuades and convinces the OPM representative to reverse course and grant the disability retirement application.

The point of making such a statement is not to “brag”, but to make the larger point:  good things can happen only if you affirmatively act.  Otherwise, you are left with what King Lear said to his daughter Cordelia, that “nothing can come from nothing”.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Disability Retirement: The “Process”

In my last writing, I briefly discussed why filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is, and must be looked upon as, a “process” as opposed to a mere “filing” with an expectation of an “automatic” approval.  This is because there is a legal standard of proof to be met, based upon a statutory scheme which was passed by Congress, and based upon a voluminous body of “case-law” handed down by the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.  With this in mind, it is wise to consider that, because it is a “process” with two administrative “stages” to the process, as well as an Appeal to an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, then potentially to the Full Board via a Petition for Review, and finally to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals — as such, each “step” in the process would naturally have a different and “higher” level of the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement. 

Because of this, it is often a frustrating experience for applicants, because a rejection or denial at the First Stage of the process often reveals the utter lack of knowledge by the OPM representative of the larger compendium of case-laws that govern and dictate how disability retirement applications are to be evaluated and decided upon.  Often, the so-called “discussion” of a denial letter is poorly written, meandering in thoughtlessness, and self-contradictory and with unjustifiable selectivity of statements from a medical report or record.  Such poor writing reflects a first-level decision-making process, and can be a frustrating experience upon reading the denial letter.  It is good to keep in mind, however, that the entire application procedure is a “process”, and each level is designed to have a greater level of competency and knowledge in the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Viewing the Office of Personnel Management

Agencies are “like” people; they are “organic” organizations (a redundancy?), and as a corporate-like entity, they respond and react as people do:  cerebrally, emotionally, reactively, angrily, etc.  If one views an agency in this way — treating the entity as one would a person — then you will often get the same or similar results as when dealing with your brother, a spouse, or a neighbor.  And, indeed, as a logical approach, this only makes sense, because agencies and organizations are made up of people.

Thus, when filing an application for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it is often important to think of “incentives” in approaching the Office of Personnel Management, to make every effort to have a carrot/stick approach in filing a disability retirement application.  The “stick” part of it, of course, is the law — the threat of making sure that OPM knows that you will be willing to go the full course — to the Merit Systems Protection Board, to the Full Board Appeal, to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.  If OPM denies your case and they get it reversed at the appellate level, it makes them “look bad”.

That is the stick to hold over them — the force of the law.  The carrot part of it is to streamline it and make it as easy as possible by obtaining a clear and concise medical report.

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

OPM Disability Retirement: The Psychology of the Process

There is, of course, the “psychology” of the process of filing for disability retirement benefits.  The term itself (psychology, psychological) is all too often misused.  All that is meant in this context is that, at each stage of the process (the initial application stage; the Second, Reconsideration Stage; the Third, Merit Systems Protection Board Stage; the fourth & fifth stages of an appeal, either for a Petition for Full Review or an appeal to the Federal Circuit, or sequentially), the applicant should have a general idea of the level of people the Applicant is dealing with.

Thus, for example, at the initial stage of the process, one should not expect the OPM Representative to be fully conversant in the law; whereas, if the case gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board Stage, the OPM representative is fairly well-versed in multiple aspects of the laws governing disability retirement.  Additionally, the level of medical knowledge varies from one OPM representative to the next.

This is not to say that each stage of the process requires a greater level of intellectual input or information; nor does it mean that each stage should be “tailored” based upon the expected level of competence.  Rather, an awareness of what to expect, how to respond, and what level of intellectual responsiveness are all necessary ingredients in preparing and filing a successful disability retirement application. In short, it is important to know the “psychology” of it all.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB.

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, as long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with generally accepted professional standards,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.

As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire