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”.

Why Is the Postal Worker Being Removed From Service?

While a compromise position on certain issues in the U.S. Postal Service Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS may be the best that one may hope for, obviously, clarity over question is the better course to have.  Thus, for instance, in a removal action, where a Postal employee is being removed for his or her “excessive absences,” it is best to have the proposed removal and the decision of removal to reference one or more medical conditions, or at least some acknowledgment by the Postal Service, that would explicate — implicitly or otherwise — that the underlying basis for the “excessive absences” were as a result of the medical condition.  There are cases which clearly state that where excessive absences are referenced by medical conditions, the Bruner Presumption would apply in a Federal Disability Retirement case.

Now, in those cases where the removal action merely removes a Postal employee for “excessive absences”, there are other methods which may win over an Administrative Judge to apply the Bruner Presumption.  Such “other methods” may include emails or correspondence, at or near the time of the removal action, which appears to put the Agency on notice about specific medical conditions, including attachments of doctor’s reports, medical notations, etc.  Such concurrent documentation can convince an Administrative Judge that, indeed, the question as to whether the “excessive absences” were as a result of a medical condition, and whether management was aware of such an underlying basis, is clarified by documents which provide a proper context within the reasonable time-frame of the issuance of the proposal to remove and the decision to remove.  It is always better, of course, to have clarity over a question, but sometimes the question can be clarified with additional and concurrent documentation.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire