OPM Disability Retirement: The Law

I will be writing an article of greater length on this issue, but suffice it for now that when “the law” works, it works well. A major second case has been decided in favor of the Federal employee — first, it was Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, 508 F.3d 1034 (Fed. Cir. 2007), and now, Sylvia M. Reilly v. OPM, decided July 15, 2009. Vanieken-Ryals toppled the irrational imposition of a baseless standard by OPM — that there is a distinction to be made between “objective” as opposed to “subjective” evidence concerning medical evidence (example of the absurdity: How do you prove the existence of pain? While an MRI may show a physical condition, you cannot prove that such a physical condition equates to debilitating pain, leaving aside any quantification of pain. Similarly, how do you prove the existence of Major Depression? Anxiety? Panic attacks?).

Now, Reilly v. OPM has toppled another idol of a false standard imposed by OPM: that medical documentation which post-dates separation from Federal Service is near-irrelevant. This has never made sense, for at least 2 reasons: first, since a person is allowed to file for Federal Disability Retirement within 1 year of being separated from service, why would medical documentation dated after the separation be considered irrelevant? Second, medical conditions rarely appear suddenly. Most conditions are progressive and degenerative in nature, and indeed, that is what the Court in Reilly argues. Grant another win for the Federal employee, the law, and the process of law. It makes being a lawyer worthwhile when “the law” works.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: Perennial Issues

Like perennial plants, some issues continue to repeatedly crop up; once planted, they keep showing up in various question-forms.  The one which needs to be addressed, again, is the “1-year” issue:  there are actually two (2) questions which keep resurrecting themselves: A.  Filing a disability retirement application within 1 year of separation from service, and B. A medical condition which must last for a minimum of one year. 

As to the former:  The statute of limitations begins to toll when a person has been officially separated from Federal Service.  This means that the Agency must take you off of the Federal rolls.  If you continue to receive a paycheck, you are likely not separated (unless, of course, it is some form of a severance paycheck); if you receive a paycheck with “0-balances”, you are still not likely separated. If you are injured and you haven’t worked for a year, but you have not received notification that you have been separated from Federal Service, the 1-year mark has likely not begun.  On the other hand, if your SF-50 or PS Form 50 states that you are separated, then you are separated.  At that point, you have one (1) year to file your Federal Disability Retirement application. 

As to the latter (Issue “B” herein):  In most cases, it is a prospective issue.  It doesn’t mean that you must “have been” medically unable to work for a year; it doesn’t mean that you have to wait around for a year, out of work and penniless, for a year; it doesn’t mean that you must be on OWCP or on LWOP or on sick leave for a year — instead, it means that your medical condition must last for at least a year.  In other words, as is the case with most medical conditions, after a couple of months, your doctor should have an opinion — a “prognosis” — of how long your medical condition which impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your job, will likely last, within reasonable medical certainty.  Indeed, since the Federal Disability Retirement process often takes from 8 – 10 months (from start to finish) to obtain an approval, by the end of the process, the full year will likely have occurred anyway.  In other words, you don’t need to wait around for a year to show that you can’t perform the essential elements of your job; indeed, that would be foolish. 

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

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

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 Retirements: Groundless Denials of FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement Applications

One would assume that when a disability retirement application has been reviewed by someone at the Office of Personnel Management, and a decision of denial has been rendered, that such a decision will — at a bare minimum — be based upon a legally sufficient ground. In other words, that the legal criteria asserted in the decision will be correctly delineated.

Unfortunately, that is too often not the case. In fact, many of the legal claims asserted by the Office of Personnel Management have no justification in law, and are exaggerated at best, and a mis-statement of the applicable laws, at worst. But for disability retirement applicants who are unrepresented, the individual may well read the decision, believe what the decision states, and become convinced that the burden is too onerous to overcome, and fail to request reconsideration in the case, discouraged that he or she will never be able to meet the legal burden imposed in the initial denial.

Thus, for instance, when an OPM denial letter states that there was “no evidence showing hallucinations, delusions or other symptoms of psychosis,” and therefore the disability retirement is denied, one might conclude: “Since I don’t have those conditions, I must not be qualified for disability retirement.” Wrong! Or, when OPM says: “There was no evidence of hospitalization or the need for such treatment,” one might become completely discouraged and say, “Oh, disability retirement requires that my medical condition is such that it requires hospitalization in order to qualify, and therefore I cannot qualify“. Wrong! Such overstated and exaggerated claims by the Office of Personnel Management are commonplace, and unnecessarily place a burden upon disability retirement applicants through mis-statements of the law. Never allow an OPM mis-statement of the law to persuade you to abandon your case; instead, seek competent legal counsel to explain what the law of disability retirement really is, and proceed from here.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire