— Is a Master merely one who knows more than a novice? Can a novice not run faster, be quicker, use a sword with greater force, outwrestle and outmaneuver a Master? What advantage does a Master have over the novice, other than the use of words which dissipate into nothingness? What good, indeed, does a Master do – other than to teach the novice of that which he lacks: wisdom to know that he knows nothing.
— From “Master and Novice”
Federal and Postal employees who are attempting to prepare, formulate, and file a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS must somehow endeavor to “put it all together” in order to meet the 7-part criteria which the Office of Personnel Management has extracted and extrapolated pursuant to (so they claim) Sections 844.101 to 844.404 of Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (for those under FERS) and similar provisions for those under CSRS (which is becoming a rarer animal close to extinction). One need only review a single denial issued by the Office of Personnel Management to recognize the template which the agency engages in: the “7-part criteria” is a synopsized, condensed application of the statutory framework for showing eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement benefits – without recognition or inclusion of the ever-expanding cases interpreting, reshaping, and clarifying the statutory authority and foundation which OPM continues to myopically adhere to as its narrow criteria to follow.In attempting to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (the applicable legal standard and “burden of proof” which a Federal or Postal employee must meet in order to become eligible) that one qualifies for each of the 7-part criteria, the Federal or Postal employee must not only contend with personnel at the Office of Personnel Management who adhere to the original statutory criteria, with all of its anachronistic interpretations (or lack thereof), but further, often the very failure of understanding what the legal criteria actually means (as opposed to what it says), all combine to make for a potentially frustrating experience.
Because of the multiple potential pitfalls in obtaining a successful outcome in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, one must always consider that the first rule of preparation must embrace the fact that the entire administrative endeavor is a “process” – meaning thereby that one must always prepare for the entirety of the process, and not expect (necessarily) to obtain an approval at the First Stage of the process. To this end, almost everyone universally believes in the following: “But my case is different because…” There never is an applicant who prepares, formulates and files a Federal Disability Retirement application who doesn’t believe that his or her particular medical condition, and the impact upon the ability to perform the essential elements of the job, is not deserving of OPM Disability Retirement benefits. A person who is unrepresented by an attorney exponentially quantifies the inherent problems which accompany the formulation of a Federal Disability Retirement application. For, all applicants believe that one’s own Federal Disability Retirement application meets all of the 7-part criteria as expounded and delineated by the Office of Personnel Management. Why is this?
First, when the object of the Federal Disability Retirement application (whom does the medical report and records refer to?) is one and the same as the subject who is preparing the OPM Disability Retirement application (who is applying?), then it is almost impossible to maintain a perspective of objectivity, precisely because the person “being talked about” is one and the same as the “person talking”. Second, an applicant who prepares the SF 3112A (“Applicant’s Statement of Disability”) will often fail to properly read and interpret the medical reports and records which form the underlying justification and basis for eligibility for a Federal Disability Retirement application. This is because the person who is preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability is the same person who already experiences the medical conditions which the medical reports and records refer to, and as such, the applicant too often “reads more into” what the medical reports and records state, than what they actually state. This is familiarly termed, “overreaching” – which is a common mistake made in preparing the narrative story of one’s state of medical condition on SF 3112A. Again, the proper sense of objectivity is lost. And, Third, there is often the danger of an incommensurate disconnectedness between that which the applicant states in the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, and that which the medical report describes. Again, this has to do with an inability to maintain a proper sense of objectivity – for the person feeling the pain must be the same person who must describe the pain. Such an endeavor is tantamount to an individual attempting to perform brain surgery – on one’s own brain.
Is it impossible for a Federal or Postal employee to successfully maneuver through the potential pitfalls of the entire administrative process identified as the “Federal Disability Retirement process”? No, nothing is ever impossible. But it can be difficult. To master the entirety of the process, from beginning to end, by being both the object of the application, identical with the subject of preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application; then to contend with the misapplication, misinterpretation and limited view of the governing laws which dictate the success or failure of a Federal Disability Retirement application -by the very governing Agency which is supposed to comprehend the complexities of such laws (that Agency being the Office of Personnel Management), is to merely recognize at the very start of the process that every such bureaucratic administrative endeavor places one at an initiating disadvantage.
Take, for instance, Criteria Number 6 which the Office of Personnel Management often focuses upon – that in order to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits you have to show that your employing agency was “unable to make reasonable accommodation for your medical condition.” While the term “accommodation” can be discovered via a proper search of the Code of Federal Regulations, OPM makes no effort to assist the potential applicant as to the nuances and interpretive history of what qualifies as an “accommodation”, and moreover, the common interpretation of what constitutes an accommodation is not intuitively obvious. Further, OPM’s own application of the concept of “accommodation” is often misguided, as professional experience has revealed.
Ultimately, the singular effort of a Federal or Postal employee in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application takes an extraordinary effort of coordinating a multi-faceted administrative process: of obtaining the proper medical documentation; of streamlining and making decisions as to which documents are not only relevant and compelling, but moreover, will advance the essence of the narrative of one’s medical condition; of formulating an effective statement of one’s medical disability and the impact upon one’s inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; of predicting and, if necessary, preempting what a Supervisor may or may not state; of addressing legal arguments which the Office of Personnel Management may make in its initial review of a Federal Disability Retirement application. The work to be done and the road one must travel, in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, is analogous to anything and everything one encounters in the course of living a life: mastery of a craft is difficult; to become a master, one must prepare well.
I am a Federal Disability Attorney who represents Federal and Postal workers from all across the United States, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. I do not charge for an initial telephone consultation; thus, if you believe that you need to consult an attorney concerning Federal Disability Retirement, please contact me in one of these ways:
- View the FERS Disability Retirement website or the U.S. Postal Service Disability Retirement blog
- Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Call me at 1-800-990-7932
Robert R. McGill, Esquire