Attorney Representation in Federal Disability Retirement Cases

Many times during the free initial consultation, I am often asked about whether or not, or how helpful, legal representation would be in an OPM Disability Retirement case.  To ask a Federal Disability 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 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 a Federal Disability Lawyer.  OPM 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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The (non) Problem of Causality & Causation

In a Worker’s Comp (DOL/OWCP/FECA) case, causation and causality often loom as significant issues, and doctors often have to walk a difficult line in making unequivocal statements, or somewhat equivocating statements, as to the “cause” of a medical condition or injury.  Such statements can sometimes be the singular focus as to the success or failure of an OWCP case.  Why?  Because OWCP compensable injuries and medical conditions must be related to the job — either as something caused by an accident while on the job, or in some way occupationally related.

In Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS or CSRS, one can be on a skiing vacation and incur in an injury, and so long as that person is unable to, because of the injury or illness, perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, one is thereby eligible for Federal Medical Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.

Sometimes, however, the issue of causation comes into the picture, but can work in a detrimental way, but need not.  Let me clarify:  In a chemical sensitivity case, or a psychiatric condition which finds its originating “causation” from the workplace, the doctor may want to relate the “cause” of the health condition directly to the workplace.  This is fine, so far as it goes — and, ironically, most doctors (because they have no idea about FERS or CSRS Medical Retirement) think they are doing their patients a favor by relating it as “causally related” to the workplace.  More often than not, however, it can open up a “can of worms” — of being characterized by the Office of Personnel Management as a “situational disability“, which must be avoided like the plague.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Developing a Case

In most cases, the normal process of disability retirement for the First Stage of the process is anywhere from 6 – 8 months; some fall towards the 6-month range; some take longer than the 8-month range.  The difficulty in most cases is that the potential disability applicant/annuitant obviously wants to get through the process as quickly as possible, most often in order to get a sense of security for the future, that he or she will have the certainty of the Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  All of this is understandable.

The process — of preparing; of submitting; of waiting as it winds through the various Agency channels and finally to Boyers, PA and then to OPM in D.C. — is a process of high anxiety and anticipation.  Sometimes, however, cases must be patiently developed.  By “developed”, I merely mean that, at times, the doctor is not ready to provide the proper medical narrative report, or to state in explicit terms that a person is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job, and that the medical condition will last for at least one (1) year.  Patience with the doctor as different modalities of treatments are applied, is often crucial in the development of a case.  My involvement in a case, even before it is fully developed, is preferred, only if to guide the client as the medical case develops, or — as is often the case — on issues involving how to respond to an Agency which is just as anxious for the whole process to begin and end, as is the client.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

December 3rd, 2009

OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this still-fragile economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for FERS Disability Retirement 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 Federal 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 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 $16,000 per year in 2021).

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
Federal Disability Retirement Lawyer

 

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Interaction with OWCP/DOL

I receive calls periodically as to whether it is of greater advantage to remain on Worker’s Comp (Department of Labor, Office of Workers Compensation Program — “OWCP”) as opposed to going out on OPM Disability Retirement.  My answer remains the same:  OWCP is not a retirement system; OPM disability retirement is indeed that — it is a retirement, where one is separated from Federal Service, and you go out and do what you want to with your life.  Every decision has consequences; every act which we engage in has inherent residual effects, and we have to balance such effects and consequences.  Thus, while OWCP benefits pay a higher rate (75% tax free with a dependent; 66 2/3% tax free without a dependent), there are restrictions:  You must comply with any and all requests (or demands) of the Department of Labor; you cannot go out and get another job, or start another career — because you are deemed “disabled” and are being paid for it.  On the other hand, OPM disability retirement pays less (for FERS, 60% the first year, 40% every year thereafter), but you have the freedom of retirement — you may go out and start another career, and make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays, without losing your disability annuity.  These — and many other factors — are some things to consider when weighing the differences between OPM disability retirement, and receiving OWCP/DOL benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS disability retirement: The Proper Paradigm

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all operate, in all segments of our lives, from a certain “paradigm” (reference Thomas Kuhn, Structures of Scientific Revolutions) or “world-view”. When it comes to Federal Disability Retirements, the majority of Federal and Postal workers who comes to me have a pre-formed, generally negative attitude about the chances of getting it. This is because they have heard too many horror stories; or they have had horrendous experiences with OWCP filings, or EEOC complaints, or other experiences which they then relate to how the disability retirement process must be.

Yet, all Federal and Postal employees must understand that the process of Federal Disability Retirement has many, many inherent advantages which make it different from other processes. For instance, the Merit System Protection Board has often observed, with respect to disability retirement, that it is distinguishable from other processes, because it is not — strictly speaking — an adversarial process between an agency and an employee; rather, the MSPB sees it simply as a single issue — that of an employee’s entitlement to disability retirement.

Further, the role of the Office of Personnel Management, while seemingly one of making things overly difficult for the individual, in reality has a very difficult time in ultimately justifying a denial. Why? Because they do not have a right to have a doctor of their own to examine the applicant/patient (note the difference with OWCP, where you can be sent to second, third, and sometimes fourth medical opinions by doctors chosen by DOL and paid by DOL). Thus, it is almost as if OPM must disprove a case filed by an applicant. Finally, it is difficult to attack a treating doctor of an applicant, unless there is something seriously wrong with the credentials or competence of the treating doctor. All in all, disability retirement for Federal and Postal Workers is a fair process — one which is a valuable benefit for the Federal and Postal Employee.

Sincerely,

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.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire
Federal Disability Attorney