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Legal Insider: Five Considerations for Federal Employee Disability Retirement Cases

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Kimberly H. Berry, Esq.

One of the more typical types of retirement matters that our firm handles involves the representation of federal employees in the disability retirement process before various federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Federal employees thinking about filing for disability retirement should consider the following five issues as they debate whether or not to proceed.

1. How Serious are the Federal Employee’s Medical Disabilities and are They Linked to Duties in Their Position Description?

When making a disability retirement decision OPM evaluates a federal employee’s continued ability to work with their medical condition in the context of the duties described in their position description. OPM uses the phrase “useful and efficient service in your current position” to describe the degree to which a federal employee can carry out their job duties.

If the medical disability is not considered serious enough, or not fully supported by medical documentation and evidence, then OPM may deny the disability retirement application.

2. How Long is the Medical Disability Expected to Last?

The duration of a medical disability is very important when OPM makes a disability retirement decision. OPM generally requires that a medical disability be expected to last at least 1 year.

When considering whether to file for disability retirement, it is important for a federal employee to consider the expected length of the individual’s medical disability. Disabilities with shorter durations can be problematic for federal employees in the disability retirement process.

3. Is it Possible for the Federal Employee to Survive on a Reduced Annuity?

If a federal employee is considering filing for OPM disability retirement, it is important to understand that this type of retirement can provide a federal employee with a lower monthly retirement annuity in comparison to full retirement. Therefore, we recommend that a federal employee consult with a financial advisor about the impact of a potentially reduced annuity before filing for disability retirement.

The good news is that an individual approved for disability retirement can generally work again in the private sector (not in other federal employment) and supplement their income (usually up to 80% of their prior salary) without losing their disability retirement income.

4. Are There Reasonable Accommodations that can be Made to Allow the Federal Employee to Continue to Work?

Sometimes a federal agency will work with an employee to provide them with a reasonable accommodation (i.e., change in duties, assignments, hours, telework or other adjustments) that can make the employee’s current position and medical condition workable and thereby avoid the disability retirement process, although this is less common.

As a part of the disability retirement process, a federal agency is required to certify that it is unable to accommodate your disabling medical condition in their present position.

The agency must also certify that it has considered a federal employee “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.” Federal agencies typically do not have an issue with such certifications.

5. Does the Federal Employee have Medical Support for Disability Retirement?

Medical documentation and evidence is the most important consideration for a federal employee when filing for disability retirement. We also find that physicians will usually help their patients in the disability retirement process.

When OPM reviews disability retirement applications, they rely heavily on a federal employee’s medical evidence. As a result, physicians and their medical opinions are crucial in the disability retirement application process with OPM.

OPM will require physicians’ statements about a federal employee’s medical issues, and these physician statements can either make or break the potential outcome in the disability retirement application process. It is important for a physician to understand a federal employee’s position description and how their disabilities interfere with their duties.

Conclusion

If you are in need of assistance in the federal employee retirement process please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or through our contact page to schedule a consultation. Please also visit and like us on Facebook or Twitter.

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