OPM disability retirement if you can’t perform your federal job
The application process can be a challenge, so legal advice and representation can be very helpful.
You may assume you will work for the federal government until retirement, but sometimes a physical or mental injury or illness interferes with the best-laid plans. If disability prevents you from performing your federal job duties, you should consider applying for disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Seek legal advice
Talking to an attorney as early as possible can be beneficial to your claim. Deadlines are tight – you must file the initial application (a detailed series of forms) either before separation or within a year of that date (with some flexibility if the applicant is incompetent). As the employee, you have significant responsibility to submit detailed medical information from your doctors that supports your disability claim. Your lawyer can help with all of that and more.
Even if you don’t get legal counsel involved at the application stage, they can represent you at any later step. A denied application is not necessarily the final decision. After an initial denial, there are still potentially four levels of appeal. The process is slow, however, and it can be months between each appeal, so retaining an attorney early can be very beneficial. A successful claim at an earlier stage can shave months off the process.
If an employee’s disability is a mental impairment that makes it difficult to apply, their guardian, conservator or another interested person may handle the application process on their behalf. Anyone with a loved one in this difficult position can seek legal advice for how to proceed.
Most disability retirement benefits are through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), although a few employees with decades of service may still be covered by the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).
The amount of payment (called an annuity) is computed according to complex formulas that account for age, length of service, salary, marital status (reduction for spousal survivor benefit unless spouse agrees to partial annuity) and others.
Disability for purposes of this benefit does not need to be work related in the way that workers’ compensation programs require. Eligibility requirements include:
- You must have a minimum of 18 months of creditable service (five years if covered by CSRS).
- Your injury or disease preventing work must be expected to last for at least a year.
- Your disability must prevent you from performing one or more of your essential job functions (unable to give “useful and efficient service”).
- Your agency cannot provide reasonable accommodations to your job or to another comparable position that would allow you to work despite your impairment.
Doing a detailed and thorough job with the application increases your chance of early approval. FERS employees must also apply for Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI) as part of the process. Should you get SSDI, in months you are also eligible for both benefits, OPM may reduce your disability retirement amount.
If the OPM denies your initial application, more opportunities for review and appeal are:
- Reconsideration, a reassessment of your application and documentation by a different OPM reviewer with an opportunity for you to submit updated medical information
- If reconsideration fails, appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) where you may have a hearing before an administrative judge (AJ) and can also present written arguments
- If the MSPB appeal is denied, appeal to an MSPB Board
- After MSPB Board denial, appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
This is a broad overview of a complex benefit program. A lawyer can answer questions and provide assistance.
At The Devadoss Law Firm, P.L.L.C., our attorneys represent disability retirement claimants at all stages of the application and appeal process.