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”.

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service Employee – The Needed Proof

Postal employees often feel that they are second-class citizens – both in terms of their status and stature as a “Federal employee” who is under either the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or (for those lucky ones who are quickly diminishing in numbers but who were able to enter the Federal workforce prior to the 1986 transition) under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS); and in terms of pay scales and discussions in Congress related to bloated budgets, inability to become profitable, etc.

For Postal employees who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement, either under FERS or CSRS, the question is often queried as to whether the U.S. Office of Personnel Management treats Postal employees differently than non-Postal, Federal employees.   Whether there is any empirical evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of OPM against Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is essentially a non-starter.  For, in the end, each case must be decided on the unique quality and extent of the medical documentation compiled.   Further, one cannot compare and contrast differentiated groups lumped by “Postal” as opposed to “non-Postal”, precisely because the uniqueness of each Federal Disability Retirement case is characterized by the medical condition itself; the type of job and positional duties undertaken by individual X who suffers from the medical condition; and the extent, severity and chronicity of the medical conditions in relation to the duties.

With literally hundreds of Federal agencies, and thousands and tens of thousands of differing types of jobs, one cannot aggregate a generic “Postal Worker” and compare it to a compounded composite of “other Federal workers”.  Thus, it is a wrong question to ask.  Instead, the proper question to ask would be:  Given a Postal Worker who is in craft-X, who suffers from medical condition-Y, is there a greater incidence of denials from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of Postal Workers who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and if there is a greater proportional aggregate of denials as compared to the total number of denials, is there a valid reason for such disproportionate treatment?

In other words, it would be – on its face – incomparably unfair to compare an IT Specialist with the Department of the Navy, who suffers from severe Major Depression and anxiety, to a City Letter Carrier who suffers from status-post cervical discectomy and fusion, precisely because of the type of medical condition involved, and the positional requirements of both.  Further, are there inherent factors within the U.S. Postal Service which can account for any disparate treatment (if we proceed on the assumption that there even exists such differentiation of reviewing and deciding Federal Disability Retirement applications filed by Postal Workers, as opposed to non-Postal, Federal employees)?   The answer is, Yes.

The Postal Service has for years been identified with the notoriety of refusing to accommodate their workers.  Whether in association with OWCP and the Department of Labor, where workers are sent to “second opinion” doctors and “referee” medical facilities in an effort to get people off of the rolls of OWCP and back to full duty; or in conjunction with the National Reassessment Program where an across-the-board infrastructural policy was implemented stating that no accommodations were available for those craft employees who could no longer perform all of the essential functions of one’s job, and that no medical restrictions or limitations would be henceforth honored – a maneuver meant to get rid of all Postal employees who were not fully functional in their jobs – the approach of the U.S. Postal Service in attempting to regain a competitive edge was to try and get rid of anyone and everyone who suffered from a medical condition such that the medical condition prevented the employee from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  One might think, upon first considering that approach, that such a maneuver by the U.S. Postal Service would increase the chances for getting a Federal Disability Retirement application approved – for, by conceding that the injured craft employee cannot perform any jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, the assumption would be that such a concession would be evidence for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as well as the Federal Disability Retirement applicant, that one is qualified because of the self-admission by the Postal Service, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

The problem is twofold:  First, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a separate agency from the U.S. Postal Service, and applies a legal criteria which gives scant attention to what the Postal Service thinks, does, or acts upon; and Second, evidence of what the U.S. Postal Service decides – while of somewhat dubious impact and persuasive authority – is ultimately not what makes a Federal Disability Retirement applicant eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Indeed, look, for example, beginning with some older precedential cases such as Wilkey-Marzin v. OPM, 82 M.S.P.R. 200 (1999) – where  the Merit Systems Protection Board found that in order to determine a disability retirement in favor of an appellant,  there must be a showing beyond uncorroborated subjective evidence, and provide a “reasoned explanation” of the origins of the disabilities, and how it is disabling with respect to one’s specific duties.  In providing some guiding principles, the Board noted that the Judge should consider the following evidence: (1) objective clinical findings; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; (4) evidence relating to the effect of the applicant’s condition on his ability to perform in the grade or class of position last occupied (see also Dunn v. Office of Personnel Management, 60 M.S.P.R. 426, 432 (1994) ).  Note that nowhere in the four (4) guiding principles is there an indication that what the agency does or doesn’t do, should be of primary consideration.  This is not to say that the issue of accommodations will not be relevant; and, certainly, one can argue that an NRP-based decision of refusing any work, or the dreaded “DRAC” (the so-called District Reasonable Accommodation Committee) determination of “no work available”, cannot be effectively used; but the primary focus in a Federal Disability Retirement case, from the viewpoint of the U.S. Postal Worker, should be to prove one’s case based upon the medical documentation, and not rely upon anything which the Postal Services does or doesn’t do.

In the end, if there has been an increase in the number of disability retirement applications, in proportional numbers as compared between “Postal Workers” and any other single Federal Agency of the U.S. Government, it may be because of such unreasonable and uncompromising positions taken under the NRP, the DRAC decisions or in conjunction with OWCP claims.  For, when a determination is made that an agency (in this case, the U.S. Postal Service) will refuse to in good faith attempt to accommodate injured employees, such an intransigent policy will quite obviously increase the numbers of applications to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But reliance upon what the agency does, without solid medical evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Postal Worker is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is to run a fool’s errand.  Postal Workers have had to face multiple obstacles over the years, both in economic downsizing and frozen pay structures; and the decision to shed its workers from within because of medical conditions is merely an indication of the heart and soul of the Postal Service – not necessarily any evidence which would qualify the Postal Worker for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  For that, one must affirmatively go out and compile one’s case, and use such evidence of the NRP as merely a secondary, peripheral

Postal Service’s Actions Can Sometimes Be To Your Advantage

Postal employees, there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency offering you modified or light duty assignments. If management deems you to be valuable, they may want to modify your position in order to keep you. However, the mere fact that you accept and work at a “modified” position does not mean that you are thereby precluded, down the road, from filing for disability retirement.

In fact, most “light duty” or “modified positions” are not real positions anyway, and so you may have the best of both worlds for many years: be able to work at a light-duty or modified position, and still reserve the right to file for Postal Disability Retirement sometime in the future.

The reason for this is simple: in all likelihood, your SF 50 will not change, and you will still remain in the same, original position. As such, the “light duty” position is simply a “made-up” position which has no impact upon your ability to file for disability retirement later on. This is the whole point of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343 (2003), where the Board held that a modified job in the Postal Service that does not “comprise the core functions of an existing position” is not a “position” or a “vacant position” for purposes of determining eligibility for disability retirement. The Board noted that a “modified” job in the Postal Service may include “‘subfunctions’ culled from various positions that are tailored to the employee’s specific medical restrictions,” and thus may not constitute “an identifiable position when the employee for whom the assignment was created is not assigned to those duties“. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.”

Analogously, this would be true in Federal, non-postal jobs, when one is offered a “modified” or “light-duty position,” or where a Federal employee is not forced to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s official position. Further, think about this: if a Postal or Federal employee is periodically offered a “new modified” position once a year, or once every couple of years, such an action by the Agency only reinforces the argument that the position being “offered” is not truly a permanent position. Sometimes, the Agency’s own actions can be used to your advantage when filing for disability retirement.

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