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.

Federal Disability Retirement in the U.S. Postal Service: The Validity of Medical Conditions, whether Physical or Psychiatric

In the year 2014, one would expect that mindsets of anachronistic tendencies would have disappeared.  Social upheaval; changes of customs, values and mores; alterations to traditional notions of what defines X; as each generation believes itself to be the wisest, so we have arrived at this period in modernity where questions of the validity of psychiatric conditions would still be an issue.  That is rather astounding.  Calls are still received where the query reflects a sense of trepidation as to the viability of a psychiatric condition.  This, in the year 2014.

Postal employees, in particular, suffer great stresses in the workplace.  It is simply a fact of life for the modern Postal Worker:  Do more with less; don’t expect a pay raise; consider yourself lucky in this economy to have a job.  But what are the consequences of following such a mandate?  Greater stresses at every tier of being occurs when employed at the U.S. Postal Service.  The real “trickle-down” economic theory has to do with the employment impact of a worker’s environment which finds its paradigmatic impetus in the U.S. Postal Service:  the physical and psychological consequences of an organization (the U.S. Postal Service) which expects more of its workers, while demanding that the same work be accomplished with less help, less pay, and within the constraints of less time, because overtime pay is forbidden.  Stress and the psychological impact upon one’s health, are the conjoining issues which can never be quantified.

As a child, one recalls a representative of the Nuclear energy industry visiting our school and giving a talk, and citing a statistic that not a single individual had died as a result of an industry accident.  At the time, the thought was:  that is a pretty amazing statistical conclusion.  As one grows older, of course, hopefully one increases in wisdom – or, put another way, in cynicism.  Question:  Does the statistical conclusion take into account a cancer-related death occurring decades later, where direct causality between an industry and the medical condition cannot be unequivocally established?  And a similar question for the U.S. Postal Service:  Do the pressures placed upon the Postal Worker, to do more with less, account for a rise is Psychiatric conditions?

It sounds so simple, in theory:  This is a hard economy; competition is more intense than ever; UPS and FedEx are eating away at the competitive edge which the USPS once held; everyone is suffering, so it is only fair to force the U.S. Postal Service to be required of the same:  Do more with less.

But as with all actions, there are consequences which – foreseen or unforeseen – take their toll.  The short answer is that, in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, there is little difference as to the viability of a case between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions.  The issue is no longer the conceptual distinction between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions; rather, the issue is one of establishing sufficient proof in filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits.  For, in the end, proving a Federal Disability Retirement case, filed with and reviewed by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is not based upon a determination of the seriousness of a medical condition; rather, regardless of the medical condition, the extent of the impact to which the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of the Postal Job which the Postal Worker must engage.

It is thus the “nexus”, or the linguistic “bridge” established between a medical condition and the type of job which the Postal Worker must work, which is the important body of proof to establish in a Federal Disability Retirement application.  How does one make that connection, or establish that proof?  Since much of Postal work involves strenuous physical activities of a repetitive nature, where physical health and fitness is the primary focus, how does one then wrap the physical aspect around the psychological turmoil?  If you can physically lift up to 70 lbs., bend and twist repetitively; stand and walk throughout the day; it matters not whether you suffer from Bipolar Disorder, Cognitive Dysfunctions, Severe Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, suicidal ideations, etc.  Or so one might assume, and therefore doubt that psychiatric conditions form a viable avenue for successfully filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, for Postal employees who are under either FERS or CSRS.

The concurrent and parallel roads which converge to precipitate the large volume of cases comprised of psychiatric conditions, by Postal Workers alone, shows the state of working for the U.S. Postal Service.  Yes, Postal Work is engaged in rigorous physical exertions, which often comprise a compendium of medical conditions which are valid bases for filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, including (but not limited to), Rotator Cuff tears; chronic knee pain; lumbar and cervical radiculopathy; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Plantar Fasciitis; and multiple other physical conditions.  Paralleling such physical conditions, however, are the stresses from such physical work which often manifest themselves in psychiatric terms, including those psychiatric conditions already mentioned above in the preceding paragraph:  Major Depression; inability to focus or concentrate; Agoraphobia (which would obviously impact City or Rural Carriers); Generalized Anxiety Disorder; uncontrollable panic attacks; and similar psychiatric medical conditions.

How does one create the nexus between (A) a Psychiatric condition which impacts the cognitive capacity of a Postal Worker and (B) the inability to perform what essentially amounts to exertional physical labor?  Quite simply:  The ability to perform physical labor does not merely involve the physical act of labor; rather, it also entails sustained and consistent cognitive focus, concentration, and attention to detail.  The intersecting and inseparable cooperation between the mind and the body in performing physical labor cannot be avoided.  Sometimes, it is the physical medical conditions (e.g., chronic pain; multi-level degenerative disc disease; early onset of arthritis; subacromial bursitis; knee problems; ankle instability; and multiple other conditions) which are primary, with the psychiatric disabilities being secondary (i.e., Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, etc., following upon the constant fight against the chronic pain, and thus deemed to be “second” in sequence with the physical conditions being primary).  The point throughout, however, is that the attempted separation and bifurcation between physical disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, no longer hold any valid basis.

A decade or so ago, the question as to whether psychiatric medical conditions were more difficult to prove in a FERS or CSRS Federal Disability Retirement application, filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, may have deserved a momentary pause for reflection.  In this day and age, the validity of such a question itself must be questioned.  The mind/body distinction which first took root in our culture through the philosophical division created by a French Philosopher named Descartes, has resulted in centuries-old questions as to the bifurcation between the physical and the psychological.  In this day and age, however, the Postal Worker need not fear or have any concerns about the viability of a Federal Disability Retirement application which involves primarily psychiatric-based claims.  Psychiatric medical conditions, including (but not limited to) Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, etc., are all valid bases upon which to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; as well as all of the physical medical conditions which one may suffer from.

In the end, it is no longer a question of whether the medical condition involves physical or psychiatric medical conditions, when it comes to a valid basis for filing a OPM Federal Disability Retirement application.  Rather, the question is how one formulates one’s case such that proof can be established that the medical condition – whether physical or psychiatric – prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s Postal duties.  It is the “how” which is important, and no longer the “whether”.

To Resign or Not To Resign From the US Postal Service

I am often asked whether or not it is okay to resign from the Post Office prior to either (1) filing for disability retirement or (2) receiving a decision from the Office of Personnel Management. A decision to resign from the Agency must be weighed very carefully, for there are multiple factors which must be considered.

I will try and outline a few of the considerations to be weighed:

(1) What advantage is gained by resigning? If it is merely to avoid the hassles of dealing with the Postal Service (the USPS may insist upon updated medical documents every couple of weeks; they may call and harass you every week; you may have an unsympathetic supervisor, etc.), then I normally advise against resigning. There is no advantage to resigning, other than the quietude of being separated from service. As an attorney, I believe that is not enough of a reason.

(2) What is the disadvantage of resigning? There may be many: Any leverage to force the Postal Service to cooperate with a disability retirement application may be lost; if your doctor has not yet written a medical narrative report (and, believe me, for some doctors, that can take months), the doctor will have to be reminded that any statement of employment impact must pre-date the date of resignation; you lose the leverage of that which the Postal Service holds most dear, for no price: your position. For the position you fill, that slot which suddenly becomes vacant once you resign, is that which is most dear, most valuable for the Agency: and to resign is to give it up without having the USPS pay any cost.

Sincerely,
Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The Initial USPS Disability Process

Many people get confused when they first consult with an attorney about disability retirement benefits for Postal Workers.  Indeed, before consulting with an attorney, an individual who is faced with a medical condition which (1) is beginning to impact one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s position and (2) will likely last at least a year — such an individual should first take the time to research various websites to “get the facts” about USPS Disability Retirement.

I have had many individuals tell me that they didn’t even know that such a benefit existed; that when they were separated from their U.S. Postal Service, the employee was never informed that he or she could file for Federal Disability Retirement.  Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse; if you don’t file for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from service with the United States Postal Service, you will have lost your right to file — forever.

Furthermore, it is dangerous to “take comfort” in the fact that the Department of Labor/The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs deemed you to be 100% disabled.  That “100%” disabled status may last a lifetime, or it may last only so long as your particular OWCP caseworker is working on your case.  The next caseworker may take it upon him or herself and decide that, Well, no, perhaps you are not 100% disabled, and perhaps sending you to a “Second Opinion” doctor (who, it just so happens, is receiving about 95% of his or her income expounding such “second opinions”) will result in a medical finding that you miraculously “recovered” and are able to go back to work.  Benefits cut off.  You waited a year or more after being separated from the Postal Service to find this out, without having filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  You are then, unfortunately, “out of luck”.  Make sure that you file in a timely manner; make sure that you do not take comfort in being on OWCP rolls.  Don’t forget –  Postal or Federal Disability Retirement is an annuity that you can rely upon as a “base income” for your financial security.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire