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 Perspective from the Office of Personnel Management

In effective argumentation, persuasion, written memoranda, oral presentation, and the entire spectrum of attempting to convince the “other side” of the validity, force, appropriateness, and viability of any administrative or legal filing of any nature, it is often a useful tool to attempt to view an issue from that “other” perspective.

Remember that, in filing a Federal disability retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is good to consider the fact that the OPM representative who will be reviewing your particular application, merely sees your application as one among hundreds of files assigned to him or her.  With that in mind, the essential question becomes: How can my particular application, as one among many, be reviewed in such a way that it “stands apart” so that it will be quickly approved? If you ask that question, or any variation of such a question, then you may be taking a wrong approach.

Remember that filing for disability retirement under FERS or CSRS is not like applying for a job; you are not filing a resume that needs to stand out; rather, it is often best if your particular application is nothing more than a “run of the mill” application — with strong, unequivocal and irrefutable medical evidence, along with strong legal arguments to support your case.

Yes, of course your Applicant’s Statement of Disability should explicitly describe the human condition of medical disablement; yes, the “nexus” between your medical condition and your job should be carefully constructed; but no, your application should not necessarily “stand out” as uniquely different — for such an application will often be viewed as “suspicious” and “over-stated”, and may well lead to not just a first viewing, but a re-viewing, and a possible denial

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Employee’s Usefulness

Federal Employees and Postal Employees should never consider or entertain the thought that filing for disability retirement benefits is a negative judgment upon his or her lengthy and productive career.

It is merely a statement of reality — that the Federal and Postal employee has had a good career; medical conditions may have shortened the first career, but this merely means that there will be opportunities to have a second career; and, in no way does it mean that there is a blemish upon the Federal career; merely that it is time to move on to something else.  And, indeed, the interruption of the Federal or Postal career as a result of impeding medical conditions merely is a statement that you are no longer a “good fit” for a particular kind of job.

Further, if you are removed from the Federal sector because of your medical inability to perform your job, such a removal is a “non-adversarial” and “non-disciplinary” action, and therefore (again) should not, and cannot, be considered a “blemish” upon one’s career.  And, finally, it is often the case that it is precisely because of the long and loyal hours you put into your job, that you paid a price for such loyalty — by embracing the stresses of the job, of working despite impending medical conditions.

In other words, very often I see that the stresses inherent in the position took a large and heavy toll upon the individual, such that medical conditions resulted from the long years of such heavy toll.  There is never a need to feel guilty about taking disability retirement; you’ve paid your dues; it is time to move on to another phase of your life.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial I

On those occasions when an OPM denial specifically (and correctly) identifies and asserts deficiencies in a disability retirement application, it is important to have a targeted response in addressing the denial.  The reason for such a targeted approach is for two primary reasons:  (1)  One should always address the alleged specific basis of OPM’s denial of a Federal disability retirement application, and (2) By specifically addressing and answering OPM’s specific basis for the denial, if the Office of Personnel Management denies the application a second time, and it is therefore appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is important to view the entire case of OPM as “unreasonable”.

In other words, it is important at the outset to “prejudice” the Administrative Judge as to the unreasonableness of the Office of Personnel Management. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this — because the “prejudice” which the Judge may perceive is in fact based upon the truth of the matter:  OPM is indeed being unreasonable, and it is important for the Administrative Judge to see such unreasonableness.  It is important to be able to say to the Judge, Your Honor, do you see how we answered the basis of the denial — and yet, even after specifically addressing the basis of the denial, OPM still denied it?  What else can we do?  It is always important to prepare each step of the case not only for the “present” case, but also for the potential “next” case.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Are Psychiatric Disabilities Denied More Readily?

I am often asked whether or not it is more difficult to get disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS based upon a psychiatric medical condition (e.g., PTSD, Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bipolar Disorder, etc.).  Does the Office of Personnel Management deny a disability retirement application which is based solely upon a psychiatric condition?   Should a FERS or CSRS disability retirement application always include a physical condition? The short and simple answer is an unequivocal “No”.

Let me provide a slightly more expanded answer:  (1)  In my experience, psychiatric disabilities present no greater obstacles than physical disabilities.  So long as we can prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the medical condition — physical or psychiatric — prevents one from performing the essential elements of one’s job, there really is no difference between the two.  (2)  Do not “add” a physical disability because you think that a psychiatric disability is “not enough”.  This would be a foolish approach.  Focus upon the primary medical conditions, whether physical or psychiatric, in proving your case.  (3)  Remember that disability retirement often has other complex factors which come into play — accommodation issues; certain jobs are more easily shown to be “incompatible” with a psychiatric disability (for instance, Law Enforcement Personnel who have psychiatric disabilities obviously must have the mental acuity to perform the inherently dangerous aspects of the position); and remember that psychotropic medications, prescribed and necessary for daily functioning, often have side-effects which impact one’s ability to perform one’s job.

The point in all of this is that there really is no substantive difference between psychiatric disabilities and physical ones, anymore; the societal stigma of “psychiatric medical conditions” has largely disappeared, and the Office of Personnel Management — in my experience — treats both psychiatric disabilities and physical disabilities on an equal par.

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: Further Thoughts on Reasonable Accommodation by the Agency

The problem with Agency efforts to provide an employee with reasonable accommodations is that such attempts are too often than not, neither “reasonable” nor legally viable accommodations.  Let’s remember that a legally viable “accommodation” is that act, allowance, or modification, which allows the employee to continue to perform and complete the core or essential elements of one’s position.  Further, Federal and Postal employees need to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency providing an accommodation that is neither legally viable (for Federal disability retirement purposes) nor “reasonable”.

Let me explain.  Let’s say that an employee works for the Postal Service.  He or she gets injured, and let’s even assume that it is a valid OWCP Department of Labor claim.  At some point, because OWCP/DOL is NOT a retirement system, they will often “create” a “modified position” and make a modified, or light-duty job offer.  It could be as extreme as sitting in a corner and answering the telephone.  Now, if the individual gets the same pay, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a modified job offer.  However, at the same time, you need to remember that accepting such a modified job offer does not preclude the employee from filing for, and getting approved, an application for Federal Disability Retirement.  This is because the modified (or “light duty”) job offer is not a real, previously-vacant position, and therefore is neither “reasonable” nor truly an accommodation under federal disability retirement laws.  Nevertheless, there was nothing wrong with the Agency making up such a “modified job” and offering it to the employee.  This is true of all Agencies in the Federal Government, across the Board, from FAA Air Traffic Controllers who have lost their medical clearances, to IT Specialists who have lost their security clearances, to executive level administrators:  modified duties, and “make-up” positions, while remaining in the same position, does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with the modified job offer.  It just means that such a modified job is neither a “reasonable” accommodation, and nor is it an “accommodation” at all — at least, not under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Agency Loyalty and OPM Disability Retirement

Many people who call me and tell me their narrative about the Agency, the medical conditions, the growing inability to perform the essential elements of the job, and the resulting need to file for disability retirement, often reveal an undertone of a common element:  after so many years of loyalty, how could the Agency show such callous lack of caring?

I don’t have an answer to the question of lack of empathy on the part of an Agency; Agencies are made up of individuals; individuals show varying degrees of care, sympathy, and loyalty, but only up to a point:  if such care or empathy will somehow be perceived to harm the “mission of the Agency”, or if walking the proverbial “extra mile” for an individual who needs some temporary support is quite simply seen as “not worth the trouble,” then the individual will simply turn his or her back on the disabled individual.

When the individual turns his or her back on the employee filing for disability retirement, then the Agency turns its back on the person; for, again, Agencies are made up of individuals.  But what about the loyalty that was shown by the employee for all of those prior years?  How about the years of doing overtime, of doing extra work without complaint, etc. — doesn’t that account for some bilateral, reciprocal loyalty?

Unfortunately, it does not amount to much. Loyalty in today’s society is defined as:  What have you done for me today?

For the Federal and Postal Employee who needs to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, expect the worst; expect that your Agency will not be supportive during the 6 – 10 month administrative filing process.  Then, if by chance, a supervisor shows some empathy and support, you will have been pleasantly surprised.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire