Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS: Understanding the Different Perspectives and Differing Interests

by Attorney Robert R. McGill

As with most things in life, attempting to secure a Federal Disability Retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS requires an extraordinary amount of time, effort, planning, and the collection, formulation and coordination of a compendium of information. Multiple questions arise at the early stages of planning: Can I live on 60% of the average of one’s highest-3 consecutive years of salary for the first year, then upon the second and subsequent years at 40% (planning stage)? Will my doctor support me (collection of information stage)? How must it be stated, and what must be stated, on the Applicant’s Statement of Disability (Standard Form 3112A, both for FERS & CSRS) (formulation stage)? How do I get the doctor to cooperate, make sure my Supervisor does his or her portion, and who fills out the Agency Certification of Reassignment and Accommodation Efforts (SF 3112D) (coordination stage)? And these are just a small fraction of the questions one needs to ask in preparing to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Before engaging in the minutiae of preparing an application for Federal Disability Retirement, it is often a good idea to take a macro-perspective of the process as a whole.

What a potential applicant for Federal Disability Retirement needs to understand, at a minimum, are the varying perspectives of (potentially) differing interests involved in the totality of the process of this “thing” called Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS. The four (4) main interests involved are: (1) The individual applicant who will be filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; (2) The Agency for which the applicant works; (3) The Doctor who is treating the applicant who is contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; and (4) The Office of Personnel Management. The key to success in filing and winning an approval is to recognize the different perspectives of each of the four main interests, to coordinate the differing interests, and then to formulate a plan to garner the proper support from each.

Thus, let us take each interest in the order listed:

1. The individual applicant who is contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. Whether because of medical conditions which have impacted the physical body – from Cervical, Lumbar or Thoracic degenerative diseases, or Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Lupus; Multiple Sclerosis; Parkinson’s Disease; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Plantar Fasciitis; Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (including allergies); Fibromyalgia; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Migraine headaches; or a host of other medical conditions not listed (this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, by any stretch of the imagination) – to Psychiatric diagnoses of Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder; panic attacks, Agoraphobia; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; ADD or ADHD; Autism Spectrum Disorders (including Asperger’s); Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, etc. (again, this list is not meant to be exhaustive), the important point is to know that the individual has come to a stage in his or her life where a medical disability has become so intractable, despite surgery, physical therapy, medication regimens; psychotropic medications; psychotherapeutic intervention; and multiple other reasonable modalities of treatments – all of which have been merely temporary and palliative in nature; but work is and has been suffering; and the individual cannot perform one or more of the essential elements of the job, and the medical condition is expected to last for a minimum of 12 months. The time has come to file. Work and career have been a major part of one’s life, and it is difficult to come to acknowledge the reality that such work cannot be performed anymore, and the years invested with an Agency must come to an end. This is where “quality of life” issues become important: Am I coming home each day just to recuperate to make it to work for another day? Am I using up so much LWOP that my performance is suffering? Am I in danger of being placed on a PIP? Is my Agency thinking about terminating me? Before it reaches a critical point, it is important to begin planning; and the first step in planning is to acknowledge bluntly and forthrightly, that the time has come to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

2. The Agency for which the applicant works. Agencies are strange organic entities. They reflect, on a microcosmic scale, the people at all levels who work for the Agency. Don’t ever expect that loyalty is a bilateral avenue – it is not. Your loyalty for twenty years to an Agency will not be remembered on the day you start to impede the mission of the Agency. An employee’s loyalty to an Agency is rewarded only to the extent that the level of performance reflects positively upon the immediate Supervisor. Once the performance level begins to falter, the true avenue of loyalty reveals itself: it is a unilateral avenue. Your years of loyalty are forgotten. Is there a solution to this problem? To some extent; by persuading those who are open to persuasion, that the applicant for Federal Disability Retirement benefits and the Agency have a common goal: the Agency wants the vacant position which the applicant presently fills; the applicant wants to secure his or her financial security by obtaining Federal Disability Retirement benefits. Thus, the emphasis upon the commonality of goals can result in a positive result which is beneficial to both parties.

3. The Doctor who is treating the applicant. He or she is the critical linchpin of the case, and to garner the support of the most valuable resource in a Federal Disability Retirement case is essential. By his or her very nature, the doctor hates such administrative details of the job. To be asked to write a medical narrative report is anathema to the very essence of who a doctor is. A doctor is trained to treat patients. The administrative headaches of writing a convincing, excellent narrative report is the last thing that a doctor wants to do. It is therefore critically important to explain to the doctor, in clear and concise terms, the nature of Federal Disability Retirement; how it differs from Social Security or Worker’s Comp; what elements and issues need to be addressed in the narrative report; and why helping to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits is in the best interests of the patient.

4. The Office of Personnel Management. This is the toughest out of the four. This is the Agency which receives and reviews all Federal Disability Retirement applications under FERS or CSRS. They apply the legal criteria in determining whether or not the applicant qualifies. Not everyone who makes a decision is fully informed of the governing laws, and so it is imperative that an Application for Federal Disability Retirement is well-formulated, concisely written, descriptively delineated, and supported by credible medical documentation. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will never meet you; you are a faceless entity with merely a paper trail. As such, the paper submission must be convincing, persuasive, and meet the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence.

A successful Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, submitted to the Office of Personnel Management, must take into account all of the four (4) interests described above, and coordinate them, taking into account the differing perspectives which will often involve seemingly opposing interests. It is the ability to garner the support of each, to coordinate and extrapolate the advantages from each, and to compile, formulate, and prepare an excellent presentation which will have a high chance of being approved by the Office of Personnel Management. This is where one might consider the “5th” entity – that of an Attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement laws. It is a consideration worth pursuing, especially because it concerns the future financial security of a Federal or Postal employee which we are speaking about – you.

Attorney Robert R. McGill specializes in federal disability retirement cases helping Federal and Postal workers secure their disability retirement benefits under both FERS and CSRS.