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.

US Postal Disability Retirement: Making the Right Decisions before Ending up At the Merit Systems Protection Board

     Long before a Federal Disability Retirement case reaches the Merit Systems Protection Board, there were multiple decisions, reviews and considerations engaged in – both by the Applicant, as well as by the reviewing Agency, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Why a particular disability retirement case ends up for an Administrative Hearing before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), as opposed to one which gets approved at the Initial Application Stage, or at the Reconsideration Stage, depends upon a number of factors.  Who makes the decisions, considerations, and reviews such decisions at each step of the way, can often make the difference between whether a case gets approved at the OPM stage, or whether a case must go to a Hearing before the MSPB. 

     As an attorney who specializes exclusively in representing Federal and Postal employees to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) and CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System), I have reviewed and been involved in all aspects of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  From Psychiatric conditions (ranging from Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Agoraphobia, etc.) to physical conditions (chronic and intractable Cervical and Lumbar pain, failed back syndrome, degenerative disk disease, plantar fasciitis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, Lyme Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, chemical sensitivity issues, Hepatitis, chronic liver and kidney diseases, visual impairment, to just name a few), as well as the combination of both (and, as an aside, many times depression becomes secondary to chronic and intractable pain precisely because of the profound and overwhelming fatigue which occurs on a daily basis), I have been able to obtain Federal disability retirement benefits for almost every medical condition there is.  This is because disability retirement is not so much concerned with a particular diagnosed medical condition, but rather, with the impact that such a medical condition has with one’s Federal or Postal job.

     At each stage in the process – from the initial application stage; if denied, then at the Reconsideration Stage; if denied, then on to an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board —  decisions were made as to what to submit, how to respond, and what information to provide in order to satisfy the legal criteria under the reviewing eyes of the “Disability Specialist” at the Office of Personnel Management.  Such decisions are crucial and critical, at each stage of the process, in terms of whether or not a Federal Disability Retirement application will or will not be approved.  Who makes the decision; how the decision is made; what is the right decision to make – these are all important considerations to take a seriously look at, for each stage of the process. 

     When a case ends up at the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is fair to say that somewhere along the line, a decision was made (or perhaps more than one decision) which did not persuade or convince the personnel at OPM to approve the case.  That is why it is important to hire the advice and counsel of an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law.  Yes, money and expense is always a consideration.  But how much money and expense is lost if a case is denied, then denied again, and the case ends up at the Merit Systems Protection Board?

     Long before a Federal Disability Retirement case reaches the Merit Systems Protection Board, there were multiple decisions made.  It is important to make the “right” decision before it reaches the MSPB, and an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law is helpful to that decision-making process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire