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

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: OPM May Say So, But… (Part 1)

I often wonder how many unrepresented disability retirement applicants there are who, having received a denial letter at the First Stage of the process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS, never file a Request for Reconsideration because they believe what the Office of Personnel Management stated in the Denial Letter.  Sometimes, I will get telephone calls from people who want to file, and during the course of the conversation, it will come out that they had filed a few years previously, and had been denied.  “Did you file a Request for Reconsideration, at the time?” I ask.  “No,” is the answer.  “Why not?” I ask.  The typical answer?  “Because I just thought there was no way to fight them on it.”

I used to be amazed at such answers, but after some thought, it makes sense.  As an attorney, my first instinct (both trained and natural) is to always take something to the next level, with the firm belief that I will prevail just by pure persistence, and by using the law as “a sword” in the process of fighting for my clients.  But most people are not lawyers (some would say, thank goodness for that, we have enough lawyers in the world), and when the Office of Personnel Management writes up a denial letter, then allegedly cites “the law”, and makes bold conclusions such as, “You do not meet the eligibility criteria under the laws governing disability retirement…”  It all sounds convincing.  It all sounds like any further action will be an act of futility.  But just because OPM “says so” doesn’t make it true, doesn’t make it right, and certainly doesn’t make it unwinnable.  They may say you don’t meet the eligbility criteria; I would argue otherwise.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

See also: OPM May Say So, But… (Part 2)

Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: How Many Should Be Listed (Part 2)?

The listing of the medical conditions in a Federal Disability Retirement application, as it is descriptively written on the Applicant’s Statement of Disability (SF 3112A) for FERS & CSRS disability retirement, to be submitted to the Office of Personnel Management, is a separate issue from the creative description of the symptoms which the applicant experiences as a result of the identified listing of the medical conditions.  Thus, a distinction should be made between the “official” diagnosed medical conditions (which should be limited in number, for reasons previously delineated) and the multiple and varied “symptoms” which result from the listed medical conditions.  Thus, while one may suffer from the medical condition termed as “Fibromyalgia”, the symptoms can be multiple:  chronic and diffuse pain; impact upon cognitive abilities, inability to focus and concentrate, symptoms which are often termed as “fibro-fog”, etc. 

When the Office of Personnel Management approves a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS and identifies the specific medical condition by which it is approved, it will identify the medical condition, and not the symptoms.  This distinction is important because, when an applicant prepares the narrative to show the Office of Personnel Management what he or she suffers from, the differentiation between conditions and symptoms is important to recognize when creatively and descriptively writing the narrative of one’s medical conditions.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Legal Arguments

Federal employee attorneys create and manufacture a parallel universe of statutory interpretation, legal argumentation, case-law citations, and extrapolations from esoteric provisions in arguing the “finer points” of law.  Thus, it is a temptation for the lay person — the “non-lawyer” — to attempt to borrow from cases and take a stab at citing case-law and statutory authority in trying to garner support for his or her Federal Disability Retirement application.

In taking on a case at the Reconsideration Stage or the Merit Systems Protection Board, I have the opportunity to read some of the “legal arguments” which non-lawyers have attempted to make.  While many such arguments are valid, some (i.e., too many) mis-cite the law, and often fail to understand and proffer the substantive import of what the cases are saying.  On top of it all, I suspect that the Office of Personnel Management gets a bit annoyed when a non-lawyer applicant attempts to preach the law to another non-lawyer OPM Representative.

A word to the wise:  let lawyers entertain themselves in the parallel universe of the law; let the doctors render their medical opinions; let the non-lawyers make the best arguments possible, in simple language.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: When it Gets to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

For whatever reason, a certain percentage of cases reach the third level in the process of applying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits:  The Merit Systems Protection Board.  If an individual is unrepresented at this level, the identical problem as that which occurs in any courtroom presents itself:  an attorney representing an individual provides an appearance of “objectivity” to the administrative judge; the advocacy on behalf of a disability retirement applicant has greater credibility, the arguments made on his/her behalf are now greater efficacy and weight, merely because the person arguing (the attorney) and the person for whom the arguments are made (the disability applicant), are not one and the same.

Whether fair or not, it is important that a disability retirement applicant obtain representation at this level, because Administrative Judges are more likely to listen to the arguments made by an attorney, precisely because the Attorney does not — other than the professional reputation of winning or losing the case — have a “personal” vested interest in the case itself.  As such, the arguments of an attorney have an appearance of objectivity, and it is that weight of objectivity which may be the deciding factor as to whether the applicant will get the disability retirement annuity, or not.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Petition for Full Review

The next step beyond the Merit Systems Protection Board, of course, is a choice: You can either file an immediate appeal to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, or file a Petition for Review before the Merit Systems Protection Board, where the decision of the Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board will be reviewed by a panel of 3 Administrative Judges.

Normally, I recommend taking the latter route, only because it allows for another step to win, as opposed to putting all of one’s eggs in the proverbial “one basket”. If an individual has put on a case without being represented, by going through OPM’s procedures, then putting on a case at the MSPB, I will rarely accept a case at the Petition before the Full Board level.

My reasons are essentially as follows: First, it was not “my case”. The applicable criteria to have an MSPB case reversed by filing a Petition for Full Review, is to point out an “error of law” that the Judge made. If I put on a case before an administrative judge at the MSPB, I try and put on “my case” — one that I believe in; one that I am an advocate for; one that I am passionate about, because it is a case on behalf of a client whom I represent.

That is why I win most of my cases, both at the OPM level, as well as before the MSPB. When someone else has gone through the process, it is simply not “my case”. To nitpick for an error of law that the administrative judge had made, when it was not my case, and not the case-laws that I relied upon in putting on my case, is simply something that I have little interest in doing. That is not to say that a case cannot be won at a Petition for Full Review. I have won enough of them; it is a matter of pointing out the error of law which the administrative judge made; but a passionate argument is essential to winning such a review.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Connecting the Dots

Care at every step of the way in preparing an OPM disability retirement application is the key to winning. The metaphorical “dots” that need to be created and connected, will ensure that each aspect of a disability retirement claim is not seen as independent entities, but a part of a larger whole.

When an individual is unrepresented, there is a tendency in filling out the multiple forms that each form is a separate piece of information. That is an incorrect approach to take. What results from such an approach is why certain cases end up at the Merit Systems Protection Board, where the Board has to figure out whether they can accept a medical condition that the applicant failed to list or identify in the original application; or whether the connection to an essential job element was properly made.

While it is true that the Board engages in “de novo” consideration of a disability retirement eligibility issue, their jurisdiction is nevertheless limited by the substantive conditions which are identified in the original application. Thus, for instance, in writing up the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is wise to coordinate it by reviewing the medical documentation; when writing up the impact of the medical condition upon the essential elements of one’s job, it is wise to concurrently review one’s official job description. While preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application in a disjointed, independent approach, you are in danger of missing an essential dot; by seeing the inter-dependency of each part of the application, you stand a greater chance of not having to go before the MSPB to test whether they can even listen to your case. Disability retirement applications must be approached in this “wholistic” methodology; that is ultimately the “winning” approach, where all of the dots have been connected.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire