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August 2020

Disability Retirement Issues for Federal Employees

By Kimberly H. Berry, Esq.,

In the course of their federal agency career, federal employees may develop serious medical conditions that make them unable to perform the duties of their position and make it important for them to consider filing for disability retirement through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). 

Background for OPM Disability Retirement Applications

Federal government employees in the FERS and CSRS retirement systems are generally eligible for disability retirement depending on their time in service with an individual agency.  Federal employees in the FERS system typically must have 18 months of service and federal employees in CSRS must have approximately 5 years of service.

OPM disability retirement applications should be reviewed by an experienced lawyer before the process begins. Often times there are crucial differences between voluntarily filing for disability retirement while still employed by a federal agency and being removed from federal service for the inability to perform the duties of one’s position. It is important to understand that while many federal agency human resources employees at federal agencies may appear to be helpful, federal employees should not rely on their assistance because they may not provide the most accurate or helpful advice. Their client is the federal agency for which they work, not the federal employees that work for the federal agency in question. Often times a federal agency, for its own reasons, would prefer to see an employee resign or apply for early disability retirement, which can hurt an individual's chances for a successful application.

Federal employees can face a host of legal issues when going through the disability retirement process. Obtaining legal advice at the beginning of the process, prior to submitting any documentation or filing an application, can give federal employees the best chance of success at obtaining disability retirement from the OPM.  It is crucial that federal employees, when considering whether or not to apply for OPM disability retirement, obtain legal advice on many important issues.

Two Important Considerations in the OPM Disability Retirement Process

Two of the more common questions that come up with respect to disability retirement follow (although many different types of issues can arise and should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by an attorney):

1. Should a federal employee apply for disability retirement early or wait for their federal employer to take action in removing them from employment based on their inability to perform their duties?  Depending upon individual circumstances, it may often times be advantageous for a federal employee to be removed from employment for inability to perform his or her normal duties rather than to voluntarily apply for disability retirement while employed in order to give the employee the best opportunity for his or her application to be accepted by OPM. This issue is often referred to as the Bruner Presumption based on the case of Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290, 294 (Fed. Cir. 1993).

2. Is a federal employee's "disability" well defined in the United States Code and other applicable regulations?  If a federal employee’s medical condition does not qualify him or her as "disabled," an application for disability retirement can often be denied. An individual can usually ensure the best opportunity for a successful disability retirement application by utilizing the services of an attorney to work with his or her physicians to thoroughly articulate the individual’s medical conditions and the reasons why these constitute a covered disability.

First Steps in the OPM Disability Retirement Process

Typically, the first step in the OPM disability retirement process is an employee’s realization and/or acknowledgement that he or she cannot continue to perform the duties required of his or her current position. The federal employee seeks medical attention and is then informed that he or she has medical limitations. These medical conditions can be physical or mental, and can be very serious. A federal agency, when faced with these issues from an employee, sometimes can be compassionate and cooperative in enabling a federal employee’s continued employment, and it may even accommodate a federal employee’s physical or mental conditions to allow him or her to stay employed with the agency.

This, however, is not always the case. Many federal agencies will attempt to place the employee on administrative leave, sick leave, leave without pay, or in other unfavorable circumstances to encourage him or her to resign from their federal employment. If that does not work, and the federal agency really wants the employee to leave, then it may attempt to remove the federal employee on the basis of his or her disability or for non-disability related reasons. Removal, solely on the basis of disability, can be a positive development in certain cases, as the law often presumes (i.e the Bruner Presumption) that if the federal employee is disabled then he or she should be entitled to disability retirement. This sometimes will make it easier to prevail in the federal employee’s application with OPM.

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A number of other legal and other issues may arise in the processing of OPM disability retirement applications, such as when to file the application, the deadlines for filing such an application, how to obtain helpful medical statements and other issues; therefore, it is very important for an individual considering this process to obtain legal advice early in the process. This article is only intended for general information. Disability retirement issues are extremely individual in nature and vary in each case. Federal employees therefore need to consult with an attorney for specific legal advice prior to initiating the OPM disability retirement process.

Berry & Berry, PLLC represents and advises federal employees with respect to their OPM disability retirement applications and provides legal advice involving the application process.  Please contact our law firm at (703) 668-0070 or to schedule an initial consultation with an attorney to discuss your disability retirement issue.