Adding to the 10 Dos and Don’ts in filing for Postal Disability Retirement benefits with OPM

It is always a good idea to review statements made, declarations asserted and advice given in spheres of influence, legal or not, just to ascertain the validity of what was stated in the past.  Then, if “updates” are necessary, or one can “add to” the value of past observations, such modifications may be fruitful and, more importantly, expand the knowledge previously gained.  The 10 dos and don’ts previously annotated in a prior article included:  Do not assume; Do not wait; Do respond affirmatively; Do ask outright of the doctor; Don’t count on bilateral loyally from the U.S. Postal Service; Do not believe everything the Postal Service tells you; Do provide a ‘totality of evidence’ approach in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application; Do emphasize the credentials of your doctor; Do not act as your own lawyer; Do present your case in a streamlined, professional manner.  While those 10 dos and don’ts are still relevant and apply today, it is always wise to revisit and refresh the underlying rationale in following such dictates of guidance, and to add some more in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application, to be filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, some further Dos and Don’ts:

  1. Do become familiar with the basic criteria of Postal Disability Retirement. Your parents may or may not have emphasized the importance of doing your homework.  Such emphasis, now that you are older and wiser, should be applied when preparing one’s Postal Disability Retirement application for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The basic eligibility criteria, of course, can be easily gleaned from OPM’s website:  for FERS employees, a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service and the existence of a medical condition that prevents the Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s Postal position.  As with all endeavors and administrative engagements, however, there is the initial, somewhat-superficial rules that apply; then, there are more “secondary” and detailed issues to identify and ascertain in gaining further knowledge of the process —  questions about accommodations and reassignment; of resignation as opposed to separation and termination; and whether you can work during the process, to what extent and for how long; and many further questions besides.  Basic familiarity is a given; detailed analysis is a must; complete understanding is recommended in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application.
  2. Do use the available law to your advantage.  The law can be used both as a sword as well as a shield.  If the former, it is utilized to advance your cause; if the latter, as a defensive mechanism to counter the aggressive parry of one’s opponent.  Preemptively use the law in guiding the U.S. Office of Personnel Management into approvbility Retirement application.  Anticipate the arguments that may arise; if the Postal Service is about to separate you from Federal Service for excessive use of SL or because you have been on extended LWOP, negotiate the terms of the termination in order to have the right to assert the Bruner Presumption.
  3. Do not necessarily believe what the Postal Service tells you.  In the previous formulation of the 10 Dos and Don’ts, the admonition was, “Do not believe everything the Postal Service tells you”.  Here, the slight twist is:  Do not necessarily believe what your agency tells you.  It may well be that the U.S. Postal Service is honest and forthright; that your Human Resource Office will provide you with the correct information, and even that they will “work” with you during this difficult time in your life.  However — and this is the caveat and the care that needs to be taken when relying upon an Agency’s direction and advice — when the Postal Facility begins to suspect that you will no longer remain as part of the “team” in pursuance of the Postal Service’s “mission”, your status as an outcast will be reflected in the selective information given and revealed.  As human nature is inherently one of a herd-mentality, it is best to take the approach of a well-known figure when considering information from a source that may no longer be looking out for your best interests:  trust, but verify.
  4. Do not wait until the last moment.  Again, this is a slight variation from the previous recommendation, which stated simply:  “Do not wait.”  Procrastination makes for unnecessary emergencies, and while medical conditions tend to take up all of the focus and energies needed just to get through a given day, the most effectively formulated Postal Disability Retirement applications are the ones that have been prepared with foresight, care and deliberative intent.  However, as life often interrupts the best-laid plans, so medical conditions have the tendency and effect of delaying the completion of multiple other facets of daily living activities, and so the following admonition is applied:  If you do not file on time, you will be precluded from making any arguments at all; if, on the other hand, you at least file before the deadline, you can always supplement later.
  5. Do be careful in completing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability.  Standard Form 3112A is the core and essence of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  The questions on SF 3112A appear to be simple enough, but the question that most people fail to ask and have answered is:  Are there legal consequences if certain questions fail to be answered in a particular manner?  The simple answer to such a query is:  Yes.  Many people believe that if you just list the major diagnosed medical conditions, gather up a few medical records that show that you have been medically identified to suffer from such conditions, package it all together and ship them over to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, that somehow the bureaucratic process will recognize the seriousness of it all and grant you your Postal Disability Retirement benefits.  Good luck with that approach.
  6. Do be the gatekeeper of the information conveyed.  It is never a good idea to rely upon the good intentions of others, if only because one’s definition of “good” and that which constitutes “good intentions” can never be presumed.  As the burden of producing evidence sufficient to meet the legal criteria of “preponderance of the evidence” is placed upon the Postal Disability Retirement applicant, so the responsibility of that which is submitted can be determined by the Applicant him/herself, or his/her attorney.  Always review everything before it reaches its final “destination point” — the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  7. Do prepare each stage of the process as if it will require the next.  While it is true that each Stage of the Administrative Process called “Federal Disability Retirement” is unique, important and self-sufficient in and of themselves — and while we all hope that there will be no need to go to the “next” stage — nevertheless, a little bit of preemptive foresight is always a good idea.  The First Two Stages of the bureaucratic process (i.e., the Initial Stage of the application and the “Reconsideration” Stage of the process are both before the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, while the “Third Stage” of the process is an administrative appeal before a Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board) may not require preemptively extensive legal argumentation, inasmuch as OPM’s “medical specialists” are not lawyers and care little about the governing law.  Nevertheless, making sound legal arguments is often a necessary pre-condition in preparing for the Third Stage of the Administrative process — before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board — and it is a good idea to “prepare the groundwork” for that possible eventuality by arguing the major legal precedents during the first two stages of the process in anticipation of the possibility for appearing before the U.S.Merit Systems Protection Board.
  8. Do not unduly focus upon the details of a denial. Each Stage of the Postal Disability Retirement process is independent of the other, to a great extent.  The added “qualifier” — “to a great extent” — is meant to apprise all Postal Disability Retirement applicants, potential or otherwise, as to the practical impact of receiving a denial at the First, Initial Stage of the Process, or at the Second, Reconsideration Stage of the process.  Each stage is viewed de novo — as new, starting over again, etc.  Thus, to try and rebut point-by-point the rationale or reasoning of the First Stage OPM’s “Administrative Specialist” is somewhat of a waste of time, as the person who will be reviewing any newly-submitted evidence at the Second, Reconsideration Stage will not be relying upon the reasons for the denial propounded at the First Stage.  This is not to say that the Applicant shouldn’t consider the general reasons and specific rationales given as to “why” one’s Federal Disability Retirement application was denied at the First Stage — only that a “point-by-point” refutation is often an act of futility.  The same general rule applies to a Second, Reconsideration Denial — for, at that point, it becomes a “game-changer” in that the de novo process will be taken up in a completely different forum:  Before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
  9. Do calculate time-frames on the “conservative” side.  Yes, yes, it does “say so” — that you have thirty (30) days from the date of the letter in which to respond to an Initial Denial, and 30 days from the date of a Reconsideration Denial to file an appeal with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board — or from the date you received the denial.  However, it is always a good idea to take the date of the letter and respond in a timely fashion using that date, instead of the more “flexible” date of when you received the Letter of Denial.  Perhaps it will seem “unfair” that there was such a lengthy delay between the date of the letter and the date you received the letter; however, as life is often full of unfair events, so this one should be viewed with a similarly dispassionate perspective.  As a general rule, that which can be ascertained as an indisputable fact (like the stated date on the denial letter) has the greater basis of reliance than one which can be later disputed (like the date one “received” the denial letter).
  10. Do not turn your responses into a personal vendetta.   Be professional about it.  It is sometimes difficult to provide a Reader’s Digest version of the history of the medical condition and be your own harshest editor, but understand that the central focus of the reviewing “specialist” at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management who will make the decision upon your Postal Disability Retirement application does not have the time, inclination or desire to sift through tangential and irrelevant meanderings in your Applicant’s Statement of Disability as reflected on SF 3112A.  Going on a tirade about how the Postal Service failed to accommodate you is not the issue; what attempted accommodations were provided and how they failed, might be — but only if stated in an objective, dispassionate manner.

Lists which purport to identify X-number of this or that rarely comprise an exhaustive compendium of the things that need to be done, and this list by no means accounts for all of the intricacies involved in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Federal Disability Retirement application, to be submitted ultimately to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Indeed, here’s another “Commandment” that should be followed:  Do not try to be your own lawyer.  Law is a peculiar animal; its technical nature and complexities often challenge the best of us, but more importantly, legal principles tend to have tentacles that reach beyond a simple understanding gleaned from a synopsis discovered on the Internet, whose source has not been ascertained and where validity is questionable.

Postal Disability Retirement is a specialized area of law that cannot easily be condensed into an abbreviated list of 10 dos and don’ts, but these Ten Principles listed herein, in addition to the previous ones discussed in a prior article, may provide some useful “tips” in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The operative concept here, of course, is encapsulated by the word “effective” — for, why else would you expend your time, effort and resources in applying for a benefit which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, unless it has become a necessary contingency leaving little choice in the matter?  Effectiveness is gained not by chance or unplanned circumstances, but by taking a deliberative approach in preparing, formulating and filing based upon knowledge and gained wisdom, and the principles underlying any efficacy of endeavors must always begin by knowledge gleaned from past experiences, or from a lawyer who is experienced in such matters.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Issues That Matter for the Postal Employee

Are there unique aspects in a Federal Disability Retirement application, separate and distinct from non-Postal, Federal employees? Are there essential features, different approaches, and distinguishable paradigms to follow? Are the rules different, applied differently, approached separately, devised insufferably, when determined to involve Postal employees? Are there unique characteristics, either through the preparation delineated from the perspective of the Postal Federal Disability retirement applicant, or from the viewpoint of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which should be recognized before making that leap into the wide and deep chasm of submitting a Federal Disability Retirement application to OPM?

Certainly, many of the appellate decisions handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, as well as by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, involve U.S. Postal employees. But is the fact that a case involving a U.S. Postal employee enough to distinguish it from other Federal, non-Postal cases? Admittedly, decisions handed down by the Federal Courts or the MSPB do not openly acknowledge any conceptual distinction between Postal employees filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, from non-Postal, Federal employees in multiple other agencies; and all presume (correctly and accurately) that both Postal and non-Postal Federal employees fall into the same retirement systems (FERS, CSRS or CSRS-Offset), and as such, the identical legal criteria are applied, including:

  • Minimum of 18 months of Federal/Postal accrued service in order to file for Federal Disability Retirement (for CSRS, 5 years, which presumably already has been met)
  • Not separated for more than 1 year
  • Having a medical condition, such that the medical condition prevents the Federal or Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job
  • Both the Federal and Postal employee cannot be reassigned to a position at the same pay or grade, and further, cannot be accommodated such that the accommodation allows the Federal or Postal employee to perform all of the essential elements of the job.

Put more succinctly, while overt treatment of both Federal and Postal employees may appear identical, are there “issues” which differentiate between the two? Certainly, and again, accurately, the cases which impact Federal employees parallel Postal employees in their direct and residual effects, and vice versa. As all Federal employees and U.S. Postal employees fall under the same retirement systems, as well as concurrently identical disability retirement benefits, the question therefore must involve any indirect consequences for the U.S. Postal worker, as opposed to the overt residuals that portend both for Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers.

Internal mechanisms unique to the Postal employee can have an impact upon how the U.S. Office of Personnel Management views, analyzes and evaluates a Federal Disability Retirement application submitted by a U.S. Postal worker. Thus, for example, the National Reassessment Process (or as some designate the acronym as representing the term, “Program”) impacted all Postal employees throughout the nation, across all crafts, in reviewing all injured Postal employees serving in a limited duty capacity or other “temporary” light duty assignment, in an effort to ultimately “squeeze” the employee, shed the Postal organization of any and all Postal workers in less than “fully productive” capacity, and return them to the OWCP rolls. But temporary “light duty” assignments, or even “limited duty” assignments (whatever the conceptual differences are between the two), were deemed not to prevent a Federal or Postal employee from being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management fought hard against such a ruling, and indeed, in the beginning (at the MSPB level), prevailed in this viewpoint.

Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001), and further extended in Marino v. Office of Personnel Management, 243 F. 3d 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2001), is a landmark case in clarifying what constitutes an “accommodation” as opposed to a temporary measure of convenience – both for the Federal and Postal employee, as well as for the agency and the U.S. Postal Service. Until the nationwide interference by the NRP in “meddling” with a system that was working, the Postal Service was attempting to maintain the delicate balance between the Postal Service’s inherent need to remain productive and efficient on the one hand, and the rights of the Postal worker who had incurred a medical disability (the majority of which were OWCP-accepted, on-the-job injuries) but retained a desire to continue working. In recognizing the two sides of “needs” and “wants”, the Postal Service created temporary, limited and light-duty assignments. When the NRP began sending Postal workers home with summary dismissals accompanied by curt declarations somewhat in the manner of, “Based upon a review of your medical conditions and the availability of work in your craft, we have determined that the U.S. Postal Service is unable to find suitable work for you” – the remaining option for stranded Postal Workers was to file for Federal Disability Retirement.

The legal definition of an accommodation, for purposes of Federal Disability Retirement, is anything that an agency can do for the Federal or Postal employee which enables “him to perform the critical or essential duties of his official position.” (See, e.g., Selby v. OPM, 2006 MSPB 161, decided June 9, 2006). Thus, placing a Federal employee in a temporary position, or a “light duty” job, does not constitute an accommodation under the law, precisely because such an action on the part of the Agency is to merely sidestep or otherwise avoid the primary concern: such a Federal or Postal employee is still unable to perform all of the essential elements of the official position. For a long time, the issue of whether or not “light duty” constituted an accommodation was essentially an irrelevant one. Prior to the NRP, the Postal Service “accommodated” (using the term very loosely) its injured workers, by allowing for limited or light duty. With the advent of the NRP, the game-changing nature of their meddling became clear: Rid and shed, and let OPM determine whether or not the two-edged sword was sharp on both sides: the Postal Service has no work, anymore, but the Postal worker has been working for many years after incurring a medical condition. Would such a Postal worker still qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

Vestiges of outmoded thought processes still retain their residual effects well beyond the life-cycle of viability. It is said that hair follicles and toenails continue to grow beyond the certainty of death; perhaps it is merely a myth, or a misperception as dehydration occurs and retraction of surrounding skin leaves the impression of growth and extension. OPM has fought their fight, and lost. Postal workers are still being sent home with summary dismissals based upon “unavailability of work,” and left to fend for themselves while receiving zero-balance paystubs for years, sometimes decades. At some point, the Postal Worker realizes that OWCP is not a retirement system, and being sent to a “second-opinion” evaluation may mean the end of temporary-total Worker’s comp payments. Then what? Filing for Federal Disability Retirement is the option to pursue, but perhaps it has been years since a treating doctor has certified that a medical condition even exists. As there is a wide chasm between perception and reality, so we return to the original question: Are there overt “issues” which differentiate between treatment of Federal employees as opposed to Postal workers? It may well be that the issues remain fairly identical, but the circumstances which create the difficulties make for a distinguishing difference.

But then, that has always been the case with Postal employees – that “quasi-Federal worker” who works for the only Constitutionally-recognized agency, but somehow is relegated as the second-class citizen in the complex universe of Federal systems, and left to consider the administrative procedures governing Federal Disability Retirement benefits for both Postal and Federal non-Postal employees. In the end, it is the very uniqueness of how the non-Postal Federal sector views the Postal worker, which mandates a cautious approach to be taken when the Postal employee considers preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.