FERS Disability Retirement: Applicant’s Statement of Disability

In most instances, when I am asked to represent an applicant at the Reconsideration Stage, after he or she has attempted to obtain an approval at the Initial Stage without an attorney, I find that the prevailing mistake made is the exaggerated verbosity of the statement itself. The old adage from Shakespeare, which (I know) is too often quoted (and misquoted), from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, where Queen Gertrude responds by saying, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” is indeed appropriate and applicable to this issue.

While the applicant’s statement of disability must be detailed, complete, and accurate, it must not be “overstated”. It should reflect the factual and medical integrity of the medical opinions and findings as delineated in the medical records, documents and notes; it should never exceed the medical evidence in assertions, claims or scope. Overzealous self-advocacy is often the problem in cases of disability retirement where the disabled individual represents him or herself. To this, of course, another common adage is applicable: “A person representing himself in court has a fool for a client.”

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Right Time

For each Federal and Postal employee, there is a “right” time to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.  By “right time”, I do not mean as to the proper timing in the actual filing of a Federal Disability Retirement case — i.e., whether it should be before or after separation from service, whether at the end of the year, the beginning of the year, etc.  No, by “right” time, I refer to the time when a Federal or Postal employee — that person who has put in all of those many years of loyal service, managed through pain, discomfort, overwhelming stresses, anxieties, fears, chronic and intractable pain, etc. — comes to the conclusion that he or she cannot continue in this mode of existence anymore.  Whether or not a Federal Disability Retirement case is filed with an agency or at the Office of Personnel Management in one month as opposed to another, is ultimately not of great importance; whether a person who is suffering from a medical condition for months, or years, and has been adept at hiding the daily pain and suffering — whether that person has come to a decision that it is now the “right time” to file for disability retirement, makes all the difference.  Each person must find that right time.  “How” and “when” are the two questions which must be answered, and only the Federal or Postal employee who is contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS can answer such questions.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Time It Takes For the “Process”

Because it is a “process” as opposed to an application to obtain an automatic service, commodity or benefit, a Federal Disability Retirement application necessarily takes time.

It takes time to properly prepare the application; it takes time to have the treating doctors properly address the multiple issues needed in order to meet the legal standards of eligibility; it takes time for the applicant’s statement of disability to be thoughtfully and in a cohesive, coordinated manner be presented in a persuasively descriptive narrative; it takes time for the H.R. office of the Agency, or the H.R. Shared Services in Greensboro, North Carolina, to complete their part; it takes time for the finance office to complete their part; it takes time for Boyers, PA to process and prep the application; then, finally, it takes time once it is sent down to the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C., to receive, review and evaluate the entire packet.

Further, right now, it just so happens that OPM seems to be “backed up” and, concurrently, has a shortage of personnel, and is taking an inordinate amount of time getting to each case.  As I often tell my clients:  If patience is a virtue, then Federal and Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement must be the most virtuous people in the universe.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Process at the MSPB

When a FERS or CSRS disability retirement application has made its way in the “process” to the “Third Stage” — the Merit Systems Protection Board — then I (as an attorney) must be unequivocal in my recommendation:  You need an attorney.  I believe that individuals who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits should retain a competent attorney at every stage of the process, but there are always considerations of financial ability, and perhaps other considerations, which prevent someone from hiring an attorney at the initial stages of the process.

At the MSPB level, however, it is important for two (2) reasons (there are many, many other reasons as well, but for brevity’s sake, I choose the main reasons):  1.  It is extremely important to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you meet the eligibility requirements, to an Administrative Judge, who is both a lawyer and a Judge, and therefore has the knowledge and background to make a reasoned assessment of the evidence presented, and 2.  You must be able to present the case in such a way that, if the Administrative Judge makes an error in his or her decision, you are prepared to appeal the case to the next level.

In order to be able to appeal the case to the next level, you must know the law, be able to present your evidence at the MSPB in accordance with the law, and therefore be able to argue that a decision rendered against you is in violation of the law.  In order to do this, you need an Attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Interaction with EEOC & Other Legal Processes

I am often asked if other legal processes already filed — an EEOC Complaint, a corollary adverse action being appealed, etc. — will have an impact upon a Federal Disability Retirement application.  My general answer is, “No, it will not have an effect upon filing for Federal Disability Retirement.”

The second question which often follows, is:  What if the EEOC filing contradicts the Federal Disability Retirement application?  While the full answer to such a question will differ from case to case, depending upon the peculiar and particular circumstances of each individual case and application, my standard response to the second question will often contain a responsive query:  Have you ever heard of an attorney speaking out of two or three (or four) sides of his mouth?

As attorneys, we make multiple (and sometime contradictory) arguments all the time.  I am not concerned with the factual or legal arguments in a concurrent/parallel EEOC case; my job is to make sure that my client obtains a disability retirement — and if it somewhat contradicts the arguments made in an EEOC complaint, so be it — for, after all, I’m merely an attorney, and such inherent contradictions only prove the fact that lawyers have at least four sides to every mouth.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The First Denial

One should not be overly panicked when the Office of Personnel Management denies a disability retirement application at the initial stage of the process.  Certainly, the denial needs to be taken seriously; the basis for the denial (which is often couched in confusing terms, based upon conflicting — almost contradictory — assertions and claims) must be identified and addressed; additional medical documentation may be needed; the proper legal authorities must be cited.

To put it bluntly:  while it is almost always a good idea to prepare, present, and file a Federal Disability Retirement application with the assistance, guidance and counsel of an attorney, it is essential that an OPM disability retirement denial be rebutted by an attorney who is familiar with the process, the laws, and the compelling arguments necessary in answering the reasons as stated in the “Discussion” section of OPM’s denial letter.

To panic is merely to waste time; to prepare is the wise course; to map out a cogent plan on how to win at the Reconsideration Stage — and, if necessary, the next stage of appeal, the Merit Systems Protection Board — is the wisest approach.  As Easter is a time of renewal, and Spring is now upon us, during the next few weeks, I will be “going back to basics” and reviewing  the process, the law, and the methodology of effectively applying to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits for FERS & CSRS employees.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Interaction with Upcoming Postal VER

High pressure sales always need to be met with a pause, a breath, and a moment of reflection.  This is not to attempt to splash any cold water upon the impending Voluntary Early Retirement packets which will be “in the mail” shortly (April 6 – 10, 2009 is the projected date of mailing out VER offer packets to all VER eligible employees).  For some employees, this may be the best and most rewarding route.  My concern is a simple one, with a long history of truth from the great source of all truths:  “If it is too good to be true, then…”   The short window of opportunity within which a decision must be made (all VER eligible employees must decide whether to apply for retirement during the period of April 10 -May 15, 2009; the actual required documents to apply for the VER must be postmarked by May 15, 2009) is short; this is a serious decision, and must be considered carefully.  Some people will decide that the comparison to disability retirement benefits is great enough to consider filing for VER first, obtaining it, then filing for disability retirement benefits within 1 year therafter.  That would be fine, but there are certain steps (creating a “paper trail”) which should be taken if this 1 – 2 – Step is going to be considered.  In any event, the bottom-line consideration must always be:  Is it in the best interest of my future?  Is it the most I can get?  Is it comparable to disability retirement benefits?  Will I think it was the best decision to make 10, 15, 20 years from now (for example, remember that the years in which a person is on disability retirement counts as years in service for recalculation purposes at age 62).  All in all, any decision that has such a small window of consideration must be scrutinized carefully.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM Disability Retirement & Postal Service Voluntary Early Retirement (VER)

For multiple reasons, early retirement — if eligible; if offered; if … — is an option which must be considered by a Federal or Postal employee.  In the coming months, Voluntary Early Retirement will be offered to Postal Employees; each year, Federal employees who become eligible for some form of early retirement must make hard financial decisions.  In light of the present state of the economy (not good), an offer of early retirement (some not so bad) may have to be considered by the Federal or Postal employee.  In each case of such an offer, the details of any such offer must be carefully reviewed and considered — especially if, concurrently, a Federal or Postal employee is considering filing for disability retirement.  A Federal or Postal employee can only collect one or the other:  you can either receive an early retirement annuity, or a disability retirement annuity, but not both.  You can, however, consider filing for early retirement (in order to continue to have some income), then file for disability retirement within one year of being separated from Federal Service. 

If you take this route of filing for early retirement, then filing for disability retirement, you must be careful.  For instance, if a lump-sum payment is part of an early retirement package, will it have to be paid back if you file for, and are approved for, disability retirement?  Further, remember that the years that you are on disability retirement counts toward your total number of years of Federal Service, when it is recalculated at age 62.  This is an important point.  The short-term benefit of retiring early may not seem like such a good idea 10 years later when inflation eats into the annuity.  A cost-benefits analysis should look to all of the factors involved:  the annuity amount and difference between disability retirement and early retirement today; the difference of the annuity when disability retirement is recalculated, and those years while on disability retirement count towards your regular retirement; and the dollar difference calculated out to the life expectancy.  These are all considerations which must be looked at carefully — not just upon one’s short-term benefit of an early retirement (which may seem great), but more than that, for the long-term security of the Federal and Postal employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: More on the MSPB Stage

While I believe that an attorney versed in the Federal Disability Retirement process can be helpful at all stages of the process, at the Third Stage — the Merit Systems Protection Board stage — the input, assistance, and representation of an experienced attorney can be invaluable.  This is essentially the “last” stage of the three-stage process.  Of course, there are two additional stages, but both concern an appeal — in the event that the Administrative Judge rules against the disability retirement applicant at the MSPB.

During the process at the MSPB, the Appellant will have what is called a “Prehearing Conference”.  At such a conference (held over the telephone), the Judge will go over with both parties (the applicant and the OPM representative), certain basic essentials about the law, to include the standard of proof, witness list, preliminary legal matters, etc.  What is important at such a Prehearing Conference is to carefully listen to the Judge.  As each Judge is human, and thus different, it is important to listen and carefully be attentive to what the Judge is looking for.  If more medical documentation is needed, exactly what is the Judge looking for?  If there is a concern about a certain legal issue — say, the issue of accommodation — what exactly is the Judge concerned about?  By being attentive to the questions of the Judge, and fashioning the Hearing to address those concerns, the applicant greatly enhances his or her chances of winning at this crucial stage of the process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: The Agency

I have written on this particular topic in the past, but certain issues seem to be “recurring thematic issues” which need constant vigilance in approaching it in the proper manner. Filing for disability retirement requires an affirmation of two foundational hurdles: (1) acknowledgment and acceptance that one has reached a point in one’s life that he/she can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  This is the “psychological hurdle” which must be overcome.  And, (2) dealing with the Agency — trying to get the Agency to be “on your side” or, short of that, to render any potential agency action to become irrelevant or inconsequential.

As to the first hurdle, the Federal employee must always remember that filing for disability retirement is not a “shameful” thing — it is a pragmatic business decision:  No longer a good “fit” for one’s job, it is a benefit which one has had as part of the “employment package” that one accepted when one became a Federal employee.  Remember that, in the private sector, an employee may get a greater salary compensation package; in the Federal government, the employment package includes more than salary:  it includes health insurance, life insurance, disability retirement benefits, annual & sick leave, etc.  Filing for disability retirement is simply part of that compensation package.

As to the second, once an employee decides to file for disability retirement, it is important to try and convince the Agency that any adverse actions contemplated (putting you on a PIP; suspension actions; negative performance ratings; contemplated removal actions, etc.) will be vigorously contested — unless it is removal based upon a medical inability to perform one’s job.   Hurdles often arise through inaction and fear; this is your life; take the affirmative road, and begin tackling the issues “head-on”.  The time to file for disability retirement is now — not tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire