SF 3112A — The Applicant’s Statement of Disability: It is the foundation of a Federal Disability Retirement Application. Without it, there is no case; with it prepared improperly, there is a case that can quickly fall apart; with it prepared insufficiently, it is merely a weak case; and with it prepared carelessly or thoughtlessly, it is a case that can come back to haunt you and leave behind regrets of irreversible damage.
Take the following hypothetical: An individual prepares, formulates and submits a Federal Disability Retirement application through his or her agency while still on the rolls of the agency. He lists X, Y and Z as the basis for his Federal Disability Retirement application in response to question 4, which asks, “Fully describe your disease(s) or injury(ies.) We consider only the diseases and/or injuries you discuss in this application”.
The application is processed at the Agency level; the case is ultimately forwarded to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Boyers, Pennsylvania, and a CSA Number is assigned to the case.
The waiting game then begins. During the long wait, two things happen: The individual is separated from Federal Service because of one reason or another (e.g., “unavailability for duty” or “Excessive Use of LWOP”, etc.). The case is denied — essentially for “insufficient medical evidence”, and the process of Reconsideration is invoked and, in the meantime, the individual has now been separated for over a year.
At about this time, a new diagnosis — a very serious one — of another medical condition has been made: One that was not previously identified in response to question 4 of the Applicant’s Statement of Disability.
Can the “new” diagnosis” (let’s refer to it as “Diagnosis-N”) be added to one’s Federal Disability Retirement application? Can the symptoms be “argued” for in requesting reconsideration of the case with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management? Will Diagnosis-N be considered at all by OPM? Will the symptoms be considered?
The short answers: No; Maybe; Likely Not; Perhaps.
Take another hypothetical: An individual similarly prepares, formulates and files a Federal Disability Retirement application directly to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
In response to Question 4 of SF 3112A, she lists every conceivable medical condition, and further, identifies every one of them with an almost-inexhaustible itemization of symptoms mixed with diagnoses and medical terms & layman’s interpretation, etc.
The person has been separated from service for over 31 days (thus the direct application to OPM without the circuitous route through her former agency), but not quite 12 months has passed, and so the statutory deadline has been met.
The long wait begins. By the time a decision on the Federal Disability Retirement application has been issued, two things occur: First, a new diagnosis (identified herein as “Diagnosis-ZZ”) has been discovered, and Second, an approval of her Federal Disability Retirement application has been received.
Before the approval was rendered, could the Applicant have included the newly-discovered diagnosis (Diagnosis-ZZ)? If her case had been denied, could she have argued to OPM that Diagnosis-ZZ should be considered by OPM at the Reconsideration Stage of the process? And, Thirdly, if out of the entire universe of medical conditions listed by the Applicant in response to Question 4 of SF 3112A, OPM chose to find her disabled based upon a minor medical condition — say, a strained right thumb (let’s assume for purposes of this hypothetical that the individual is, say, a Postal Rural Carrier who is right-hand dominant or is an administrator for a Federal Agency who must use her right thumb on the computer keyboard consistently throughout the day) — and ignored the multitude of serious, other conditions listed — can the individual object or otherwise appeal the basis for the approval?
Short answers: Maybe; Possibly; Likely Not.
Recall, first, that the query as constructed in Question 4 of SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability, has a single operative word which can be easily overlooked: only — as in, “We consider only the diseases and/or injuries you discuss in this application”.
The statement comes after the mandate requesting the description of the Applicant’s medical conditions, almost as an afterthought that can be easily overlooked. Yet, the legal consequences originating from that singularly restrictive, modifying adverb should never to underestimated; for, once you have submitted your application to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, you are stuck with what you have annotated in response to Question 4 of SF 3112A.
Details of the Hypothetical Scenarios
So, you may ask, what is the relevance of the two hypotheticals described above?
They are meant to illustrate the spectrum of difficulties arising from real-life scenarios, but are not meant to exhaustively depict all possible circumstances or residual consequences delimited by the illustrations. Rather, there can be many more such legal problems that can come about if one is not mindful of the language used.
Take a look at the examples/hypotheticals, again. What do they show us?
The first one reveals a concise, “A-B-C” approach in “fully describing” one’s medical conditions. Example: “I suffer from Back Pain, Left Leg Pain and Right Shoulder Pain.” Pretty specific and not much room for an expansive interpretation of the listed medical conditions.
The second illustration reveals an endless narrative that includes not only the bathtub, the baby, the bathwater as well as the kitchen sink, but the universe in its entirety and infinite possibilities therein. Each can provoke problems down the road, whether intentionally or not.
Is there a solution?
Language’s malleability is always the counter-reactive force in dealing with a grammatically restrictive mandate. The spectrum of the two extremes on either end — of being restrictively concise, on the one hand, and at the other end of the spectrum, of trying to include every possible condition and symptom experienced — are not the “only” ways of answering Question 4 on SF 3112A in response to “only” those diseases or injuries that OPM will consider.
There is a middle ground of being concise, yet expansive enough to allow for the malleability of language to “dovetail” newly-discovered medical conditions or those which had not been officially identified previously. Hint: Describing symptoms as opposed to applying concise medical diagnoses is often where elasticity of language can arguably include later-diagnosed medical conditions.
An appearance of simplicity in language often fails to betray the complexity inherent in its facade of uncomplicated directness. SF 3112A is a prime example of that.
To overlook the significance and weighty import of the adverb “only”is to do so at one’s peril. To simply read SF 3112A as an “easy” government form (an oxymoron, to be sure) to complete when preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is to overlook the complex inherent in the simple. To overlook the complexities underlying the simple-looking request of SF 3112A is to forge ahead into Federal Disability Retirement Law at one’s peril, whereas one might consider consulting with an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement Law — first.