OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this still-fragile economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS, that it will be difficult to “make up” the income with another job, even though a person under Federal Disability Retirement can earn up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays.

Yes, it can be tough; yes, the economy is a concern; but recessions ultimately come to an end, and while a job to make up the severe pay-cut may be long in coming, self-employment, to begin a start-up business, or to work part-time is often an excellent opportunity.  Unlike having the larger percentage of pay under OWCP-DOL benefits, a disability retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS is indeed a greater pay-cut.

But salary is not everything; the freedom of retirement, the ability to determine one’s future, and not be under the constant and close scrutiny of Worker’s Comp, accounts for much.  Where some see a severe pay-cut, others see as an opportunity to begin a second career.  And the price of freedom from those onerous fiefdoms of federal agencies is often better health, and greater enjoyment of one’s freedom and retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Initial Step Is the Most Difficult

I find that the initial step in filing for Federal Disability Retirement is the most difficult step for people to take.  It is often a psychological block.  I have spoken on this issue in the past.  For a Federal or Postal worker, especially in these constrained economic times where the job market outside of the Federal Sector appears restrictive, at best, the pressure of one’s medical conditions and the impact upon one’s job, results in an anxiousness when it comes to filing for federal disability retirement under FERS or CSRS.  Certainly, it is a significant pay cut.

Certainly, it is a worry that — although one may be able to make up to 80% of what one’s (former) Federal salary currently pays — it may be that the private sector may not offer the opportunities to make up the difference in the pay cut.  Yet, the choices are often stark and untenable; for, at some point, it becomes clear that one’s medical conditions prevents one from performing the essential elements of the job.

As such, the only and best choice is to move forward:  in fact, even in this economy, creativity will be rewarded.  Private companies actually find independent contractors who carry his or her own health insurance a plus; part-time work is offered more readily in a bad economy precisely because it allows for companies to obtain necessary work and skills without having to pay the “extra” benefits.  The initial step is the most difficult; after stepping beyond the difficulty, Federal and Postal workers who obtain disability retirement benefits find that there is a different and better future — even in this economy.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Problems with the OWCP Paradigm

The problem with basing one’s future stability upon an “OWCP Paradigm”, or “model”, are multiple in nature.  To begin with, you cannot work at another job while receiving OWCP temporary total disability payments.  Thus, while you may be an injured worker, and unable to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal job, you may nevertheless be able to be productive in some other capacity, and may be capable of starting a business or working in some other field.  This is true if you are on OPM Disability retirement:  You can go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays, and continue to receive your disability annuity.  This is a good deal, in my view, because it provides an incentive to go out and become productive, and to plan for the future. 

Furthermore, OWCP/Department of Labor is notorious for cutting off benefits at the first sign that you are anything less than fully cooperative with their dictates.  OWCP may send you to a “second opinion” doctor who finds that you are “completely recovered”, thereby endangering your Worker’s Comp benefits.  Or, in order to save money, they may dictate to you that you must work as a Wal-Mart greeter, and pay you the difference between a menial job (not of your choice) and what they are paying you.  If you refuse, OWCP may simply ascribe what they believe you can earn, and pay you the difference — or not pay you anything.  While OWCP has procedures for appealing decisions, it is a long and arduous road to take.

These are only some of the problems associated with basing one’s future upon a Worker’s Compensation paradigm.  That is not to say that one should not file for and accept OWCP payments — it definitely pays more, and for a temporary period of payments in order for an injured Federal or Postal employee to remain financially solvent in order to recover from one’s work-related injuries, it is a good program.  As a paradigm for planning for one’s future, however, there is much to be desire.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Investment for the Future

Ultimately, whether or not this is an optimum time for an individual to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS is a decision each individual must make, depending upon the specific circumstances.

From a medical standpoint, of course, most individuals have no choice because he/she must file for disability retirement.  From an economic standpoint, as private companies cut back and begin relying upon a part-time workforce without needing to pay for a worker’s health insurance benefits and other benefits, a Federal Disability Retirement Annuitant is a very attractive potential worker, indeed, because most such annuitants retain their own health insurance benefits.

Such an annuitant can go out and find a job making up to 80% of what his/her former job currently pays, and still continue to receive the disability annuity.  Further, while each individual must make a decision concerning hiring an attorney to help secure disability retirement benefits, it should always be looked upon as a long-term investment.

Disability annuitants may be chosen randomly every two years to answer a Medical Questionnaire, and it is equally important to retain the benefits, as it is to initially secure it.  These are all issues which must be considered carefully, as an investment for the future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: The Reasonableness of the Governing Law

Without getting into too many comparisons, the laws governing disability retirement benefits are, upon reflection, actually quite reasonable.  Think about it this way:  yes, it doesn’t pay a great amount, but at the same time, you are encouraged to go out and be productive in some other employment capacity, and are able to make up to 80% of what your former job pays currently.

Unlike the stringent and onerous OWCP/DOL laws, you are not subjected to arbitrary, so-called “independent” medical examinations by doctors who make a substantial portion of their livelihood on rendering such “independent” second, third, and fourth opinions; your application is based upon what your own treating doctor says — not by some doctor who is a specialist in “disability ratings” or “disability determinations”.

This latter criteria is actually for the benefit of the applicant, when you stop and think about it.  For, if the law allowed for disability retirement applications to be determined by doctor’s opinions who are “disability specialists”, and not by your own treating doctor, then what would happen is that the entire disability retirement process would become a war between doctors and so-called specialists, overshadowing the one who should count the most — the treating doctor.

Instead, as the reasonableness of the present law stands, the weight of the medical determination is based upon the applicant’s longstanding treating doctor — and that is the way it should be.  For it is only a doctor who has enjoyed many years of an intimate doctor-patient relationship who should be granted the special weight and status that is accorded in disability retirement laws:  the special status of one who can make a viable, respectable determination of one’s employment capabilities, based upon the medical conditions he or she suffers from.  All in all, the disability retirement laws are governed by a criteria of reasonableness.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM disability retirement: Clarification of issues for FERS & CSRS employees

In moderating the Martindale-Hubbell Message Board for Federal Disability Retirement Issues, two areas of law need clarification for those out there contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS: First, the issue of whether a potential applicant needs to wait to be separated from Federal Service in order to obtain the “Bruner Presumption“, before filing for disability retirement.

The short answer is an unequivocal, “No”. To wait for an agency hoping that they will separate you for your medical inability to perform your job, is like waiting for your rich uncle to die and leave you an inheritance: It may never happen, and even if it does, it may not be worth it. While the Bruner Presumption is a nice additional weapon to have in arguing for an approval, it is not a necessary element.

The most important element in an OPM disability retirement case is to have a supportive doctor. Application of the Bruner Presumption — a recognition by the Agency that they cannot accommodate you, and further, that you cannot perform your job as a result of your medical condition, while a weapon in arguing for an approval to OPM, is not necessary in most cases. The point is to make sure your supporting medical documentation is strong, thereby negating the need for the Bruner Presumption.

Further, another common confusion which people have is what it means to be “separated from service”. The Statute of Limitations in Federal Disability Retirement cases is 1 year from the date a Federal Employee is separated from Federal Service. The 1-year does NOT begin when a person is on LWOP, or when a person is on FMLA, or any other reason. The 1-year begins when a person is officially terminated, separated, or taken off of the rolls of Federal Service, or when a person resigns from the Federal Service. It is 1 year from that date that a person must file for Federal disability retirement benefits, or you lose your right forever to do so.

Second, and finally (at least for this particular Blog piece), with respect to the 80% rule — where a person can earn income up to 80% of what one’s former Federal job currently pays: this is in addition to the disability retirement annity that a person receives.

Think about it, and it is logical: disability annuity is not “earned income”; the 80% rule applies only to “earned income”. Thus, for example, a person who was making $60,000 at a Federal job, who goes out on disability retirement, would get $36,000 the first year under FERS (60%), and $24,000 per year every year thereafter (40%). At the same time, that person can go out and make up to $48,000 per year (80% of $60,000), with that amount going up slightly each year (assuming that the payscale in the Federal system goes up each year for that same pay and grade). I hope this clarifies some of the issues that may have given rise to some confusion.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

In Filing for OPM Disability Retirement, Remember the Basics

In the opening sentence of Davis v. the Office of Personnel Management, PH-844E-06-0242-I-1, the Merit Systems Protection Board reminds us all that the “burden of proving entitlement to a retirement benefit is on the applicant…” In past federal disability articles, I have discussed a variety of issues, from important legal principles based upon Bruner v. OPM, to showing how to build the “proper bridge” in preparing a disability retirement application. In preparing a disability retirement application, however, remember to always satisfy the “basics”, because if you fail at the basic level, you will never get to the “substantive” level to argue your case. Davis is a case about a disability retirement applicant whose application was denied at the first Stage (the “initial application stage”) because she “did not present any medical evidence to support her claim.” Strike One — how can you file a medical disability retirement application without any medical evidence?

Next, Ms. Davis failed to file her “Request for Reconsideration” within the 30-day period. She filed it 5 days late. Strike Two — you won’t even be able to argue the substance of your disability retirement case if you don’t take care of the “basics” — like filing your Request for Reconsideration in a timely manner. In OPM’s denial letter, it clearly stated: “Your Request for Reconsideration must be received by OPM within 30 calendar days from the date of your initial denial letter.” Ms. Davis had no excuse.

Now, every now and then — but very, very rarely — an exception will come along. Such was the case in Goodman v. Office of Personnel Management, 100 M.S.P.R. 43 (2005), which was cited as a distinguishing case by the Board. In Goodman, multiple factors allowed the appellant to be excused for her tardiness — including, being misled by OPM verbally over the telephone; receiving the denial letter some three weeks after being postmarked (thereby leaving her with only a week to respond); and being a quadriplegic who had to rely upon others to assist her in responding. Be aware: only under the most exceptional of circumstances will being late in responding be excused. You must take care of the basics, before going on to the substance of a case.

Ms. Davis filed an appeal to the Full Board. Her appeal was, as you might guess, denied. The Board stated that in cases such as this, where Ms. Davis “fails to show that she was not notified of the deadline and was not otherwise aware of it, or that she was prevented by circumstances beyond her control from making the request within the time limit, we will not reach the issue of whether OPM was unreasonable or abused its discretion in denying her untimely request for reconsideration.” (italics added).

Strike three. Ms. Davis is out. As I have reiterated throughout this article, unless you take care of the basics, you cannot even get to the substance of your disability retirement claim. Like the parable of the mighty army which could defeat its enemy, that army could not survive to fight the battle unless it took care of a basic need — water for its troops to cross the scorching desert to meet its enemy. It failed to take care of the basics.

In life, we are all busy doing multiple things, and when a Federal or Postal Employee comes to a point in his or her life where filing for disability retirement becomes a necessity, it is often a good idea to hire an attorney — not only to ensure that the “basics” are taken care of, bur further, to make sure that you get the opportunity to argue the substance of your particular case. My name is Robert R. McGill, Esquire. I am a duly licensed Attorney who specializes in representing Federal and Postal Employees, to obtain disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management. If you would like to discuss your particular case, you may contact me at 1-800-990-7932 or email me at federal.lawyer@yahoo.com, or visit my website at www.FederalDisabilityLawyer.com.

As an aside, let me point out some other “basics”:

1. Remember that you have one (1) year from the date you are separated from service to file for disability retirement. The one (1) year date does not begin when you stop working; it doesn’t begin when you get placed on LWOP; it doesn’t begin from the time you get disabled. It begins from the date you are separated from Federal Service.

2. For my clients (and those who are not my clients) whom I got disability retirement for — remember that you are allowed to get another job and make up to 80% of what your position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity you are receiving. It is earned income that counts — not rental income, not investment income, and certainly not your disability income.

3. A teaser — I will probably address this issue in my next article — the Office of Personnel Management seems to, more recently, be scrutinizing those who are already receiving medical disability retirement benefits. For those of my clients (and those who are not my clients) who receive disability retirement, remember to take OPM’s Medical Questionnaire seriously. I have had more cases than usual where disability annuitants have had their disability income discontinued. More on this later….

 

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement compared to OWCP

OWCP vs. OPM Disability Retirement

The Department of Labor administers Federal Worker’s Compensation Benefits through the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP). Such benefits are non-taxable, and are paid for temporary total disability, for injuries or medical conditions which result from, or are caused by, a workplace injury. There are many tangential factors which may be added to this basic definition, but for purposes of distinguishing OWCP from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Disability Retirement, this definition will suffice. Additionally, generally speaking, OWCP/Federal Worker’s Compensation is not a “retirement system.”

OPM Disability retirement, on the other hand, is a retirement system. As a result of a medical condition which impacts one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, a person is eligible to retire early, based upon a “medical disability.” A person on OPM Disability Retirement is separated from the Federal Agency, and he or she may “move on” in life, and perhaps start another career (with certain limitations as stated below).

When is it Time to File for FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement?

An individual must file for Federal Employees Retirement System/Civil Service Retirement System (FERS/CSRS) disability retirement benefits with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from Federal Service – otherwise, the right to be eligible for disability retirement benefits is lost. Do not confuse this with being placed on Leave Without Pay (LWOP), or being out on OWCP for being injured. The clock begins ticking when you are actually separated from service. Most people, however, should not wait until they are separated to file for disability retirement benefits, but rather, should file whenever it becomes apparent that he or she can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of the job.

Taxable vs NonTaxable Benefits

OWCP benefits are non-taxable. OPM Disability Retirement benefits, on the other hand, are taxed. While receiving disability retirement benefits, a person may undertake a job search, accept another position, and earn up to 80% of what his or her former position currently pays. Individuals receiving OWCP temporary total disability may not work at another job – period. Here is a sample scenario using OPM Disability Retirement rules:

A worker’s average salary for 3 consecutive years totals $50,000. The individual goes out on disability retirement, and after the first year (in which he would receive 60%, or $30,000), he is eligible to receive an annual annuity of 40%, or $20,000. The worker then applies for and accepts a job in the private sector. The worker can accept a job that pays up to $40,000 per year (80% of the current salary), and still be eligible to receive the $20,000 per year disability annuity.

The 80% Rule Increases Over Time

The rule is “80% of what a person’s former job pays currently.” If 5 years from now, a person’s former position pays $60,000 per year instead of $50,000, then he can make up to $48,000 per year at the job, because 80% of $60,000 is $48,000.

Filing for Disability Retirement while on Workers’ Compensation

It is often not a bad idea for those who are receiving OWCP benefits to remain on OWCP for as long as they can stand it (i.e., the persistent harassment, the constant oversight by so-called “2nd opinion doctors”, etc.) — but to always have the FERS/CSRS disability retirement annuity approved as a back-up source of income. Individuals may file for disability retirement concurrently while on OWCP — but you simply cannot collect from both at the same time (See 5 C.F.R. Sec. 844.105, “Relationship to workers’ compensation. (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, an individual who is eligible for both an annuity under part 842 or 844 of this chapter and compensation for injury or disability under subchapter I of chapter 81 of title 5, United States Code (other than a scheduled award under 5 U.S.C. 8107(c)), covering the same period of time must elect to receive either the annuity or compensation.”).

When OWCP terminates payments (and there is a very good chance that this will happen at some point in the near future), it is a wise option to have your disability retirement benefits approved, but held in an inactive status. Federal workers have every right to elect one benefit over the other. Indeed, if you wanted to, you are allowed to go back and forth between OWCP and FERS/CSRS disability retirement.

As a secondary issue on this matter, a closer look at 5 U.S.C. Section 8106, paragraph (c) (2), (OWCP) on “partial disability” compared with the definition for disability retirement reveals: that “partially disabled employee who refuses or, neglects to work after suitable work is offered to, procured by, or secured for him, is not entitled to compensation.” This means that if OWCP secures a job for you as a retail store greeter for instance, and pays you the difference between your salary and what retail store pays — and you decide to say “no”, OWCP has every right to cut off your payments.

On the other hand, under the laws concerning FERS & CSRS disability retirement, 5 C.F.R.Sec. 844.103 (a)(2) states that, in order to be eligible for disability retirement, the individual “must, while employed in a position subject to FERS, have become disabled because of a medical condition, resulting in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or if there is no such deficiency, the disabling medical condition must be incompatible with either useful and efficient service or retention in the position.” The difference here is that, under OWCP, if you are “partially disabled,” if you are offered any job that OWCP believes you can do, you must accept it. On the other hand, under FERS/CSRS disability retirement laws, if you are partially disabled — meaning that you simply cannot do at least one or more of the essential elements of your job — then you are entitled to disability retirement benefits, and your agency or the Postal Service cannot simply offer you any job; they must offer you a job in the same pay or grade, and one in which you are qualified or, if you are in the Postal Service, then it must an accommodation in the same craft.

Controlling Your Future

Under OWCP, you have no control over your future – OWCP determines your future. Under OPM Disability Retirement, you can obtain disability retirement benefits, and then take control of your future and work at another job of your choice, make up to 80% of what your (former) position pays and still continue to receive your disability annuity.