CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Coming Year

For all Federal and Postal employees who are considering, or may consider in the coming year, filing an application for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, I hope that this “continuing blog” has been helpful, and will continue to be helpful. 

In the coming year, I will attempt to stay on top of any changes in the current laws, including statutory changes (if any), any new developments handed down through opinions rendered by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board or the Federal Circuit Courts.  One’s future is what is at stake in making the all-important decision to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and I will endeavor to remain informative, and provide you with a level of professionalism which all Federal and Postal employees deserve.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM and a Delicate Balance

The Office of Personnel Management, as a Federal Agency, always maintains a “public face” of stating that they welcome inquiries and telephone calls to check on the status of a pending Disability Retirement application.  Yet, we all know that Agencies, Departments and the personnel and offices which comprise all Federal entities, are made up of “people”, and people are complex bundles made up of different and differing personalities.

There is a fine and delicate balance to be maintained between an “inquiry” and a “bugging”, and further, between an acceptable level of “bugging” and one which crosses the line into annoyance.  It is good to recognize and know when and if the lines are crossed.  A power struggle is a fine thing to get into, where there are two camps of equal power.  Where there is an imbalance of power, however, it is often unwise to insist upon the tug-and-pull of such a struggle.

A word to the wise:  in dealing with any Federal Agency, be it the Office of Personnel Management or a Supervisor at a given Agency X, maintain a voice and tone of professionalism; the person on the other end of the telephone, no matter how friendly, is not your next-of-kin; be courteous, always, even if you want to insist upon something.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement is a Medical Issue

If a Federal or Postal Employee is still on the rolls of the Agency, or if you have not been separated from service for more than 31 days, then the disability retirement application must be routed through your agency before being forwarded to the Office of Personnel Management for processing and review.

If you have been separated from Federal Service — meaning, you have actually been taken off of the rolls of your agency (this does include being on sick leave, or on annual leave, or on leave without pay) — for 31 days or more (but not for more than 1 year, in which case you have lost your right and ability to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, because you have allowed the 1-year statute of limitations to pass by), then you must file your case directly with the Office of Personnel Management in Boyers, PA.

Whether routed through your agency or directly to the Office of Personnel Management, remember that a Federal Disability Retirement application is ultimately a medical issue — not a supervisor’s issue, not an agency issue; it is not determined by your agency; your eligibility is not determined by your supervisor.  It is, essentially, and at its very core, an issue between you, your doctor, and your inability to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Standard Forms Do Not Mean “Standard Responses”

The problem with “Standard Forms” is that they often appear to solicit “standard responses”, and in a Federal Disability Retirement case under the Federal Employees Retirement Systems (FERS) or the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, it is often because a Federal or Postal employee/applicant who confronts and begins to fill out SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability, the very “blocked” appearance of the form, and the constricting questions themselves, makes it appear as if a “standard response” is required.  Don’t be fooled.

By way of example, take a “special animal” — that of a Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller who must take a disqualifying medication, loses his or her medical certification from the Flight Surgeon, and thinks that filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is a “slam dunk”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Or, a Customs & Border Patrol Agent who goes out on stress leave, or suffers from chronic back pain.  Are there “standard responses” in filling out an Applicant’s Statement of Disability?  There are certain standard “elements” which should be considered in responding to the questions, but don’t be constricted by an appearance of “standard responses” to a “standard form”.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Disability Retirement: OWCP & the Postal Service

For many years, being on Worker’s Comp when injured while working for the Postal Service, worked fairly well. The Postal Service, in conjunction with, and in coordination, would offer an acceptable “modified position”, delineating the physical restrictions and medical limitations based upon the treating doctor’s clinical assessment, or in accordance with the OWCP-appointed doctor. The Postal employee would then work in that “modified position”, and so long as the Postal Supervisor or Postmaster was reasonable (which was not and is not always the case), the coordinated efforts between OWCP, the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal employee would result in years of “quiet truce”, with the tug and pull occurring in some of the details of what “intermittent” means, or whether “2 hours of standing” meant two hours continuously, or something else – and multiple other issues to be fought for, against, and somehow resolved. 

The rules of the game, however, have radically changed with the aggressive National Reassessment Program, instituted in the last few years in incremental stages, nationwide. Now, people are summarily sent home and told that “no work is available”. Postal Workers are systematically told that the previously-designated modified positions are no longer available — that a worker must be fully able to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job. This last point, of course, is what I have been arguing for many, many years — that the so-called “modified job” was and is not a permanent position, and is therefore not a legal accommodation under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees. After so many years of having the Post Office and the Office of Personnel Management argue that such a “modified job” is an accommodation, it is good to see that the truth has finally come out.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The OWCP Paradigm

One may choose OWCP benefits because, financially, it pays more (75% non-taxed for an individual with dependents; 66 2/3% for a single individual) than a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  It is a pragmatic paradigm to rely upon for the immediate time-frame; however, it is not a practical paradigm for the future.  Obviously, one should obtain an approval from the Office of Personnel Management for one’s disability retirement, concurrently with receiving OWCP temporary total disability payments.  However, upon an approval from OPM, you need to elect between the two — because you cannot be paid by both concurrently.  Many people (rightly) choose to remain on OWCP and keep the OPM Disability Retirement annuity in “limbo or annuity purgatory” — again, because OWCP pays more. 

However, as a paradigm for the future, it should not be relied upon forever.  This, because OWCP is not a retirement system.  Instead, it is a system of allowing for payment during a time of occupational disease or injury, for a person to be able to recover from such an injury.  While on OWCP benefits, however, you cannot work at another job (unlike under FERS & CSRS disability retirement); in fact, if you engage in too many physical activities similar to those which you might do at work, you may find that you will be criminally charged for “fraud”.  This has happened to many people, and it should frighten anyone who is on OWCP.  In such cases, you will often find that you have been videotaped over hundreds of hours — but the “edited” version upon which OWCP investigators charge you with, will be a video clip of about 5 minutes.  Next:  Why OWCP is not a good paradigm for one’s future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement and Paradigms for the Future

In attempting to decide to file for Federal Disability Retirement Benefits, it is often the case that Social Security disability benefits must be considered (not just “considered”, obviously, for FERS employees, because it is a requirement to file for it), and how seriously and vigorously; and further, whether to pursue, or to continue on, OWCP temporary total disability benefits.  These are “paradigms” that must be considered for the future.  By “paradigm”, I mean that they represent “models” of how a person wants his or her future to be based upon.

For instance, let’s take the paradigm of Social Security disability benefits.  Because FERS employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits must also file for Social Security disability benefits (to see if they qualify; and, if qualified, the offsetting features will apply), one must take into consideration whether or not a Federal or Postal employee will actually want Social Security disability benefits.  This question arises because Social Security has a “cap” in which a person who receives Social Security disability benefits can make ancillary earned income (roughly no more than $12,000 per year in 2013).

Because of this, one must think of the future paradigm of one’s life:  If a person on FERS disability retirement wants to go out and get a part-time job, or start on a path for another career, where he or she makes 15, 20, 25,000 per year or more (because remember, a person can make up to 80% of what a person’s former Federal or Postal job currently pays), then he or she may not want to get Social Security disability benefits.

Most people who are on Federal disability retirement are simply disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of the particular job; they are not “totally disabled”, and therefore are able to go out and start a second career.  This is the “paradigm” for the future which must be considered, and such a model for the future must be carefully thought through.  Next:  the OWCP paradigm.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Agency Interaction

Federal Agencies often act like little fiefdoms.  This is not necessarily a negative thing; each agency is an independent entity, and each has a province of responsibilities which it must carry out and execute according to the statutory mandate provided by Congress.  As independent entities, each agency acts without coordination or regard to other agencies.

Thus, while approval for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration will mean an offset of monetary payments under FERS, such interaction between the two agencies simply goes to the financial payments — not to the substantive issues of approval or disapproval of a disability retirement claim.  Similarly, while receipt of temporary total disability payments from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs means that you cannot concurrently receive payments under CSRS or FERS disability retirement (unless you are receiving a scheduled award from OWCP/DOL), the substantive basis of approval or denial of a claim rarely overlaps.  This is because each agency has its own independent criteria for eligibility — meaning that, for Social Security, the “disability” has a higher standard of “total disability”, whereas under FERS & CSRS, it is a lower standard of “inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”.  Similarly, with OWCP/DOL, the issue of “causality” and whether it is “work-related” is often the important component of consideration.

All of this is not to say, however, that an approval of a disability benefit from one agency,or a report from a doctor considered for one benefit, should not be used by the applicant for submission to another agency.  Indeed, this should be done — but carefully, and with thoughtfulness.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Argument by Analogy

Attorneys argue “by analogy” all of the time; cases and decisions from the Merit Systems Protection Board, and language from the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, provide the fertile fodder for such argumentation.  Thus, such issues as to whether the Bruner Presumption should apply in the case; whether a case is similar to previously-decided Federal Disability Retirement cases; the similarity of fact-scenarios and legal applications — they are all open to argument by analogy.

That is why case-citations are important — even in arguing a Federal Disability Retirement case to the Office of Personnel Management.  Whether and how much influence such legal argumentation can have at the first two stages of the disability retirement application process, may be open to dispute; but cases should never be compiled and prepared for the first or second stage alone; all disability retirement applications should be prepared “as if” it will be denied and will be presented on appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Such careful preparation serves two (2) purposes:  First, for the Office of Personnel Management, to let them know that if they deny it and it goes on appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, they will have to answer to the scrutiny of the Administrative Law Judge; and Second, for the Administrative Law Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board, to let him or her know that you did indeed prepare the case well, and that your particular Federal Disability Retirement application conforms to the law, and should therefore be approved.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Attorney Representation

I am still often asked about whether or not, or how helpful, legal representation would be in a Federal or Postal Disability Retirement case.  To ask an attorney such a question is often unhelpful, for there is always the question as to how much “self-interest” an attorney has in answering such a question.

What I can state, however, is the following:  Remember that everyone believes that his or her case is a “sure thing” — this is natural, because the very individual who is filing for disability retirement is the one who is suffering from the medical condition, and so it is a very “personal” matter, and a sense of objectivity is difficult to maintain in these matters.

Second, remember that when you hire an attorney, you are not just hiring someone who “knows something” about FERS & CSRS disability retirement; instead, you should be hiring that lawyer for his or her reputation, his knowledge of the administrative & legal process with the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board, and how well he is “thought of” by OPM (i.e., how long has he been practicing in the field of Federal Disability Retirement law, does he know the people at OPM, and more importantly, does OPM know him/her?).

Finally, always keep in mind that, while attorneys can be expensive, you must always do a cost-benefits analysis, and look at the benefit you will be receiving (or not receiving) if you do or do not hire an attorney.  Disability retirement benefits are essentially a means of securing one’s financial future, and as such, the benefit to be secured is important enough to consider hiring an attorney.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire