Discretionary Decisions Made by Federal Disability Lawyers

As an OPM Disability attorney, I am often asked questions by people of which I am unable to answer.  They are not questions concerning “the law” underlying Federal Disability Retirement, but rather questions which go to my “professional discretion” as an attorney in putting together a Federal Disability Retirement packet, prepared to go forth to the Office of Personnel Management.

By “professional discretion” questions, I mean those questions which go to making decisions and choices concerning medical reports, percentage ratings received from the Veterans Administration; permanency ratings received from Second Opinion or Referee doctors, or the fact that one has reached “maximum medical improvement” and is now “permanent and stationary”, and whether to use such collateral sources of medical documentation in putting together a disability retirement packet.

The practice of law is not all objective and straight-forward; part of the “practice” of law is of an art form, based upon one’s experience, and professional discretion sharpened by repetitive experiences in working with the Office of Personnel Management and in representing Federal and Postal employees before the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Further, there are some questions which I answer only for those whom I represent.  I am happy to provide general information about the process of filing for federal disability.  For those whom I represent, however, I reserve for them the art of practicing Federal Disability Retirement law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Years Later, Still On the Rolls of the Agency

The Postal Service is especially guilty of this, but many other Federal (non-Postal) agencies are also “negligent” on the issue of keeping an injured worker on the rolls for years on end.  Often, such “non-existent” Federal and Postal workers receive OWCP payments, or simply go on with their lives while unofficially still a Federal or Postal employee.

Never having been separated from Federal or Postal service, such individuals are still eligible for filing Federal Medical Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS because the 1-year statute of limitations has not been violated.

So long as a Federal or Postal employee files for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS within one year of being separated from service, you have met the statute of limitations.  If you were never officially separated from service, then your 1-year deadline never began.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Reconsiderations

The Office of Personnel Management does not give a decision over the telephone.  At least, that is their stated policy.  They ask that you instead wait for their written decision, which will be “sent in the mail shortly”.  Sometimes, of course, either by the tone of the conversation or by some slip of the tongue, one can discern whether or not a Federal Disability Retirement application has been approved or denied.  But such “guessing” can be a dangerous endeavor to engage in, and as such, I follow the very policy of OPM and will not convey to my client any “internal thoughts” following upon any discussions with an OPM representative. 

First of all, I find that calling an OPM representative too often is counter-productive; they are overworked as it is, and repeatedly inquiring about the “status” of one of my cases only irritates them further, and there is always the danger of having it denied simply to get rid of it (aghast — can this possible ever happen?)  Second, I made the mistake many, many years ago of once telling my client that his/her case had been approved, when in fact it had been denied.  I learn from my mistakes.  Hopefully, my experiences gained from such mistakes have made me wiser today.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Last Minute Filing

Too often, I receive calls from Federal and Postal employees (or rather, formerly thereof) who have waited until the very last conceivable moment to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.  Yes, I realize that time erodes away slowly, almost imperceptibly, and all of a sudden it is an emergency.

Can a case be put together within a couple of weeks?  Yes.  Is it best to wait until the very last minute?  No.  Remember that all Federal and Postal employees only have up until one (1) year from being separated from Federal Service, to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But life happens; time slips away; what was once 6 months is now only 30 days, or perhaps 2 weeks.

I may have told this story before, but here goes:  On the desk of a civil clerk in a local County Courthouse, is a sign which reads:  “The fact that you procrastinated does not make your filing my emergency”.  That is essentially true; however, whenever I get calls by panicked individuals who have failed to use the 1-year Statute of Limitations wisely, in most cases, I have been able to properly put the case together, and file it on an emergency basis.

In such circumstances, adaptation is the key:  some things need to be filed later, but the essential forms to meet the deadline must be immediately filed.  There are very few true emergencies in life, and most cases can meet the deadline — no matter how much the Federal or Postal Employee has procrastinated.  However, it is better not to wait until tomorrow, that which can be done today.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Service Disability Retirement: After a Resignation

Anyone and everyone who has followed my blogs or my more lengthy articles knows that an individual has up to one (1) year to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, after being separated from Federal service.  The clock begins to run upon a resignation by a Federal employee.  The actual date of separation should be ascertained on the “Form 50” or “PS Form 50”, as a personnel action.  There are many reasons why an individual resigns.  Perhaps it is because of an impending adverse action; a threatened adverse action; a fear of a future adverse action; or because a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job. 

Whatever the reason, if an individual has a medical condition such that he or she could no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, prior to the date of the resignation, then there is a good chance that the (now former) Federal or Postal employee may be eligible for disability retirement benefits.  Indeed, my view as an attorney who exclusively represents Federal and Postal employees to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is that if you have invested a considerable number of years of your life in Federal Service, then you should seriously consider whether your medical condition was a primary, or even a contributing, factor in your resignation decision.  Don’t let the clock run for too long; it may pass quietly, to a time when it is too late.

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: 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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OPM’s Specific Denial II

It is important to always “define”, “corner”, and “circumscribe” any denial from the Office of Personnel Management.  If you do not, then what happens at the next level is that it becomes a “de novo” process.  Now, one might argue that all disability retirement appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board are de novo, anyway.  That is true enough — meaning, that all of the evidence is looked at “anew” and without prejudice from any previous finding by the Office of Personnel Management. 

Yet, there is the “legal” definition of de novo, and the practical effect of de novo; often, the Administrative Judge at the MSPB will, at a PreHearing Conference, turn to OPM and say, Listen, OPM, it seems that the only reason why it was initially denied was because of X, Y & Z; the applicant certainly answered X & Y in his/her reconsideration answer; is the only thing you are looking for is Z?  What this does is to narrow the issue.  Often, to save time, face, aggravation and other things, OPM will concede the narrowing of such issues, and this is true if you respond to their administrative queries by defining what they are asking for, then providing it to them, then showing how it has been provided to them, so that they are “cornered”.  Thereafter, if it gets denied and it needs to go to the MSPB, the Hearing can then proceed with a narrower, streamlined and limited number of issues to prove.  Again, the reason why it is important to define what it is that OPM is asking for, is not only for the “present” case, but in preparation for the potential “future” case.

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