Federal Disability Retirement: Filing Within the 1-Year Timeframe

Nancy B. Alston

Federal and Postal Workers who are injured, or who develop a medical condition during their tenure as an employee of a Federal agency or the U.S. Postal Service, have many decisions to make. Making the proper decision is dependent upon accurate information; accurate information should be based upon a combination of experience, integrity, and foresight into the particular situation of the Federal or Postal worker contemplating which benefit will be best suited for the specific circumstances.

Information is plentiful, and in this modern era of the internet, there is often an informational overload. Volume of information is rarely the problem; rather, it is the sufficiency and relevance of the chosen information, to the extent it is useful and pertinent, which will determine whether such information is helpful and proven.

For the Federal and Postal employee, the impact of the medical condition upon one’s livelihood, ability to maintain a regular work schedule, and the necessity to entertain the idea of a cessation of one’s career, all together further compounds the problem in addition to suffering from the medical condition itself. Whether to file for Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits under the Federal Employees Compensation Act through the Department of Labor; or to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System or under the older system of Civil Service Retirement System; or perhaps to do it in sequential order, or concurrently; or not at all. This latter option is normally not a viable choice at all. However, in the midst of suffering from a medical condition, where supervisors are harassing workers who are not fully productive, and where adverse actions are threatened, the weight of the world and the seeming closure of all reasonable exits will often lead one to make irrational, unwise decisions.

Fortunately, under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement, a person has a right to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits up to one year from the date of separation from service. Thus, even for those Federal or Postal employees who unwisely – perhaps in the heat of the moment, or in a temporary spat of insanity because of the stress and pressure of dealing with one’s medical condition and its impact upon one’s ability to continue in the job – tenders a resignation which prompts a personnel action of separation from Federal Service, such a person will still have the opportunity to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits for up to 12 months after the separation from service.

Is it more difficult to prove a Federal Disability Retirement case once a Federal or Postal worker has been separated from Federal Service? Fortunately, the level and burden of proving such a case remains consistent, so that a person who unwisely, and without much thought, jeopardizes one’s future by rashly saying, “I quit!” – will stand the same chance as those who continue to remain employed. So long as the Federal or Postal employee has a supportive doctor, who will create the necessary nexus between one’s medical condition and the inability to perform at least one, if not more, of the essential elements of one’s job; and, further, show that the medical condition will last for a minimum of twelve (12) months; and finally, that the medical condition which prevents the Federal or Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job began to have such an impact prior to the separation from Federal Service; the chances of qualifying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits will be equal to those who did not engage in such on-the-spot decision-making of separating from Federal Service.

As for filing for Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits – one should consult an attorney who is knowledgeable about the laws impacting separation from Federal Service. Generally speaking, however, the purpose and underlying rationale for Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits is to allow for a period of compensation such that the Federal or Postal worker will be able to recuperate and have the rehabilitative time in order to return to full duty. Thus, Federal Worker’s Compensation is not meant to be used as a “retirement” tool, but rather as a means to allow for the injury to be healed, and then to continue working. That is why many people receive temporary total disability benefits under the Federal Employees Compensation Act, through the Department of Labor, for such time as is needed to recover.

By contrast, Federal Disability Retirement benefits are meant for precisely what the term implies – a retirement, based upon one’s medical condition, and therefore a separation from Federal Service once the U.S. Office of Personnel Management approves a Federal Disability Retirement application. Can a person who learns of a medical condition after he or she is separated from Federal Service, file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits or for Worker’s Compensation benefits, so long as it is still under the umbrella of one year? Again, for OWCP issues, you should consult an attorney who specializes in such matters – but as a practical matter, causality may be problematic if a person only “discovers” the medical issue after being separated from Federal Service. As for such a discovery and its impact upon a Federal Disability Retirement claim, there will obviously be some difficulties may also be encountered.

For, while causality is never a substantive legal issue to be concerned with when formulating and putting together a Federal Disability Retirement application, the question which is paramount in a Federal Disability Retirement case is one of the extent of the impact upon one’s duties in the Federal or Postal position one occupied while being a Federal or Postal employee. As a practical matter, if you quit, then discover afterwards that you have a medical condition after separation from Federal Service, how will you prove that the medical condition which you were never aware of prevented you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your former job? There are cases in which such proof has been effectively gathered – where unexplained cognitive dysfunctions, or profound and intractable fatigue, prevented one from performing multiple essential elements of one’s job, but where the identifying diagnosis could not be definitively asserted until after the separation from Federal Service occurred. Here again, so long as a supportive doctor is willing to render a medical opinion retrospectively, there is a good chance that one can qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits – after the fact.

Above all, the key is to file on time. The rule is: If you don’t file your Federal Disability Retirement application within 1 year of being separated from Federal Service, you don’t have the ability to make any arguments at all. If, on the other hand, you file in time, you always stand a fighting chance that your case will be reviewed fairly, thoroughly, and hopefully, with a successful outcome.

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