By Kimberly H. Berry, Esq., www.retirementlaw.com
Our law firm handles many different types of federal retirement issues in our representation of federal employees. One of the more common types of retirement cases that we often handle involves the representation of federal employees in the disability retirement process before various federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Federal employees filing for disability retirement are typically either covered under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).
The following questions identify a few of the initial considerations that you should examine when determining whether or not to pursue OPM disability retirement. If you are seriously considering filing for disability retirement, there are many considerations (certainly more then just five) to discuss with an attorney knowledgeable in this area of law.
The following five tips are only meant to get you thinking through some of the issues and concerns as you to consider or begin filing for OPM disability retirement:
1. How serious are the federal employee’s medical issues and are they linked to the federal employee’s position description duties?
When making a disability retirement decision, keep in mind that OPM evaluates your continued ability to work with your medical condition in the context of the duties described in your position description. OPM uses the phrase “useful and efficient service in your current position” to describe the degree to which you are able to carry out your job duties. If the medical disability is not deemed serious enough, or not fully supported by medical documentation and evidence, and is not sufficiently linked to your inability to “usefully and efficiently” carry out your job duties, then OPM may deny the disability retirement application.
For instance, an application of a federal law enforcement officer with a continuing serious heart condition would likely be given serious consideration if her medical reports and letters adequately document her inability to usefully and efficiently carry out her position description duties. In contrast, a federal employee with a back injury and whose position involves mostly administrative duties, who does not have appropriate medical evidence to show the continuing seriousness of his illness and inability to perform his job duties, could potentially have difficulty succeeding in the disability retirement application process.
2. How long is the medical disability realistically expected to last?
The duration of a serious medical disability is very important as well. OPM generally requires that a medical disability be expected to last at least one year in duration. When considering whether to file for disability retirement, it is important for you to consider the expected duration of your medical disability. Disabilities with known shorter duration could be problematic for you in the application process.
3. Can a federal employee survive on a reduced annuity?
If you are considering filing for OPM disability retirement, understand that this type of retirement usually provides you with a lower monthly retirement annuity in comparison to full retirement. As a result, we recommend that you consult with a financial advisor about the impact of a potential reduced annuity prior to filing for disability retirement.
4. Are there modifications to a federal employee’s current position that can be made to allow the federal employee to continue to work?
Often times a federal agency will work with you to provide you with a reasonable accommodation (i.e., change in duties, hours, telework or other adjustments) that can make your current position and medical condition compatible or workable. This can often be the best solution. As a part of the disability retirement process, the federal agency is required to certify that it is unable to accommodate your disabling medical condition in your present position. The agency must also certify that it has considered you “for any vacant position in the same agency, at the same grade or pay level, and within the same commuting area, for which [you] qualified for reassignment.”
5. Do your medical professionals believe that you should not continue in your current position?
This is an important consideration when filing for disability retirement. We find that physicians will usually be open with their patients about whether or not it is a good idea to keep working in their current federal employment position. We have identified at least two reasons to discuss a possible filing for OPM disability retirement with your treating medical providers. First and foremost, your health should be of primary importance and continuing in a job that hinders or impedes your recovery is not good for you. Second, physicians and their medical opinions are necessary and, in fact, crucial in the disability retirement application process with OPM. OPM will require physicians’ statements about your medical issues, and these physician statements can either make or break your potential outcome in the disability retirement application process.
When considering OPM disability retirement, it is important for you to obtain the advice and representation of legal counsel. You can contact our law firm through www.retirementlaw.com, www.berrylegal.com, or by telephone at (703) 668-0070, to schedule a consultation to discuss your individual federal employment retirement matter.