Important Cases Which Impact Federal Employee Disability Retirement

— What is ‘history’ but the story of the victorious? It is the culmination of the incremental and persistent drive of countless and nameless individuals; the residue of an onslaught of thousands of nameless soldiers who died before the final wave defeats an army; the extraordinary sacrifice of ordinary individuals, the true heroes of history; for how many unheralded soldiers who merely do their duty, how many nameless tombstones helped secure victory? We shall never know — only that persistence in the pursuit of excellence is never a lost cause.

— From History, A Long-Term Approach

The recent case of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, decided on November 26, 2007, cannot be overemphasized for its importance to the Federal Disability Retirement process. It is, in my view, a landmark case which will greatly advance potential OPM Disability Retirement applicants who base their disabilities upon psychiatric conditions. In representing my clients, I have repeatedly argued that the Office of Personnel Management’s insistence upon “objective medical evidence”, especially when it involves clients who suffer from psychiatric medical conditions (e.g., Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bi-Polar Disorder, etc.) is not only unfair, but irrational.

My past arguments were met with varying degrees of success, but the essential argument that I made over the years went something like this: Psychiatric disabilities by their inherent nature are “subjective”, because there is no diagnostic test which can objectively determine symptoms of psychiatric disabilities. Indeed, while there are multiple psychological tests which can be administered, the results are still based upon the subjective responses of the patient. Furthermore, a doctor’s clinical examination, long-term evaluation by a treating doctor, and the consistent assessment by one’s treating doctor, provide for the best and most ‘objective’ basis for a valid medical opinion. Further (my argument would often go), even physical disabilities (like a bulging disc) which can be ascertained by an MRI, cannot provide a conclusive basis to determine the extent of one’s pain or inability to perform certain tasks, for pain is by definition a “subjective” condition; there are, indeed, some who have bulging discs but have very little pain, and others who have a minimal bulging disc which completely debilitates the individual. These were rational arguments made, and while fairly persuasive when combined with case-law citations, the force of such arguments often depended upon the receptiveness of OPM’s representative or, at the Merit Systems Protection Board level, the receptiveness of the Administrative Judge.

With the opinion expressed by the Court in Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM, we no longer need to rely upon the arbitrary receptiveness of an individual, for we have a firm legal basis to counter the irrational basis that OPM routinely gives in their denials based upon an objective/subjective distinction.

The Court in Vanieken-Ryals made several important declarations in their opinion:

1. That OPM can no longer make the argument that an Applicant’s Federal Disability Retirement application contains “insufficient medical evidence” because of its lack of “objective medical evidence”, especially when the application is based upon psychiatric medical conditions. This, because there is no statute or regulation which “imposes such a requirement” that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.

2. As long as the treating doctor of the OPM Disability Retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with ‘generally accepted professional standards'”, then the application is eligible for consideration.

3. It is “legal error for either agency (OPM or the MSPB) to reject submitted medical evidence as entitled to no probative weight at all solely because it lacks so-called ‘objective’ measures such as laboratory tests.”

Ultimately, for purposes of this article, which is (hopefully) read by many non-lawyers, the essence of the Vanieken-Ryals case is that it exponentially strengthens a Federal Disability Retirement application based solely upon psychiatric medical disabilities. The case itself contains many other elements which provide for strong ammunition, when used wisely and with knowledge, for the FERS Disability Retirement practitioner of law. It makes a strong and unequivocal statement that OPM’s and MSPB’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands for “objective” medical evidence and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.” This is indeed strong language which can be used as a sword to prevail in a Federal Disability Retirement case.

Persistence in the pursuit of a client’s right and entitlement to Federal Employee Disability Retirement benefits is never a lost cause, and those who have hesitated from filing for Federal Disability Retirement because they suffer from purely psychiatric medical disabilities, or from disabilities which are often harder to “objectively” justify (e.g., Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, etc.) have a greater chance because of the bold legal opinion as expressed by the Court in Vanieken-Ryals.

This is a landmark case of incalculable importance and impact, which cannot be overemphasized. I have already cited the case on numerous occasions at the MSPB level, and the fact that it is a Court of Appeals decision makes it binding upon all MSPB judges. It gives greater hope for those who suffer from Psychiatric Disabilities alone, that their cases will not somehow be looked upon with less chance of approval than a person with a physical medical condition.

Other case updates: While Vanieken-Ryals was not a case that I represented, there are some case-updates from my own files which may be of some interest to my readers. All information provided is already in the public record of the written Opinion of the Judges, and there is no information revealed here that violates my attorney-client confidentiality. I wish that I could claim that I win all of my cases; I cannot. However, it is my firm belief that persistence in the pursuit of a client’s Federal Disability Retirement application is never a lost cause, and here are three cases which reinforce my philosophy:

1. Tucker v. OPM (DA-844E-07-0314-I-1)   The Office of Personnel Management kept denying Ms. Tucker’s Federal Disability Retirement application. This case was finally won at the Hearing level. However, the Office of Personnel Management filed a Petition for Review. I responded with — among other arguments — the fact that the Office of Personnel Management failed to make any legal arguments showing that the Hearing Judge committed any legal errors. The Full Board rejected OPM’s Petition and affirmed the decision in my favor. No further appeals have been filed. I am happy for my client that after so many years, she will now get her OPM Disability Retirement. Persistence in rebutting OPM’s attempt to reverse a Hearing Judge’s decision is never a lost cause.

2. Hartsock-Shaw v. OPM (PH-844E-06-0658-I-1)   This one is the converse of the previous one, in that the Hearing Judge initially affirmed OPM’s denial of my client’s Federal Disability Retirement application. I filed a Petition for Review, because I believed the Judge was wrong in not applying the Bruner Presumption in this case. The Full Board vacated the Initial Decision and Remanded the case back to the Hearing Judge, requiring further testimony on the issue of whether the Bruner Presumption should have been applied. We were able to factually prove that the circumstantial evidence necessitated the finding that my client was removed for her medical inability to perform her job, even though there was no final letter of removal issued by the Postal Service that we could find. The Judge sided with us, reversed her prior decision, and granted my client her Federal Disability Retirement benefits. Persistence paid, and persistence in the pursuit of a Federal Disability Retirement claim is never a lost cause.

3. Heiter v. OPM (AT-0831-07-0435-I-1)   This is an interesting case. It has to do with a client who lost his Federal Disability Retirement benefits because he tried to go to work for Federal Express. He was being punished for trying. One would think that a Federal Disability Retirement annuitant would be commended and praised for trying — but, no, because he applied for, got the job with, and then quit, a job with Federal Express, he was deemed to have been ‘less than honest’ for having retired on disability from a Postal Job, and therefore OPM cut off his Federal Disability Retirement benefits. We went to Hearing on the matter; the doctor testified unequivocally that he couldn’t do the job — neither the Federal Express one nor his prior Postal job — but he couldn’t fault his patient for having tried. OPM made a big deal about the fact that my client periodically went bowling. The Judge ruled in OPM’s favor. I filed a Petition for Full Review. The Board reversed the Initial Decision, and reinstated my client’s disability retirement annuity.

Here again, persistence pays, and persistence in pursuit of a disability claim is never a lost cause.

I am a Federal Disability Lawyer who specializes in representing Federal and Postal employees to obtain and retain OPM Disability Retirement benefits. In pursuing one’s entitlement to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, one must always take the long-term perspective, and pursue that right with aggressiveness and persistence. It is an investment for one’s future, and it is important to pursue your future investment aggressively, and to sustain your investment for a long time into the future.

For more information, contact me in one of these ways:


Robert R. McGill, Esquire


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