The requirements for OPM Disability Retirement can be confusing. You may have read everything you could find about this benefit and still be wondering to yourself, “Will my medical condition be accepted by the OPM?”
OPM Disability Retirement provides you with the option to retire early, while receiving a secure monthly annuity, health and life insurance, creditable years of service and the ability to work outside of the federal sector. This is a life-changing benefit, and it’s important to know whether or not you will be able to receive it based on your condition.
The good news is the OPM does not have a set list of disabilities that qualify for OPM Disability Retirement. If your condition is affecting your ability to do your particular federal job, and you have sufficient medical evidence proving this, it could potentially qualify for this benefit.
The OPM’s definition of disability differs from the definition of disability under other laws like the ADA and Social Security Disability.
According to the OPM, disability is any medical condition that inhibits an employee from continuing to complete at least one of the major functions of their current position.
OPM Disability Retirement is solely looking for an occupational disability, not a total disability. So, you just have to prove that you can no longer work in your current federal job, not any job ever. Keep in mind that your disability does not have to be caused by work, but it does have to be expected to last for at least one year.
For example, a USPS letter carrier tears a rotator cuff while playing football with their child. Their doctor states their injury is expected to last for at least one year. As a USPS letter carrier, they are expected to lift at least 70 pounds. Since they have torn a rotator cuff, if they are now unable to lift that amount, which could qualify them for OPM Disability Retirement.
Types of disabilities
There are many different types of disabilities, but they are typically split into mental and physical conditions. These disabling conditions can be pre-existing, but in order to be approved for OPM Disability Retirement, you must prove that they have worsened while in your FERS position after a period of useful and efficient service.
When determining whether an employee seeking disability retirement is capable of performing useful and efficient service, the MSPB will consider whether the employee is a danger to themselves or others. See Thorne v. Office of Personnel Management, 107 LRP 15380 , 105 MSPR 171 (MSPB 2007).
Your disability must cause an occupational disability, which is important to distinguish from a situational disability. A situational disability is only a problem due to your current situation, and if resolved, you would be able to complete the essential functions of your job.
For example, you have a coworker that is causing you extreme anxiety and it’s affecting your ability to work. If that coworker is removed, or you are moved to a different location and you are now able to complete your job without a problem, that is considered a situational disability.
It is often harder to prove that your mental condition is an occupational disability opposed to a situational disability so knowing the difference and how to support your case is important.
Physical conditions affect your body and your physical ability to do your job. Physical disabilities can be temporary or permanent, but even temporary physical disabilities often have lasting effects.
Physical disabilities typically manifest in one of two ways, either traumatic injuries or repetitive motion injuries.
- Traumatic injuries are sudden injuries that are incapacitating- this can be a stroke, heart attack, or even a car accident.
- Repetitive motion injuries are conditions caused by a repetitive motion over a period of time- this could be carpal tunnel syndrome, or degenerative disc disease.
Service Deficiencies for Physical Conditions
For OPM Disability Retirement, you must prove that your medical condition is causing a service deficiency in either attendance, performance, or conduct. These service deficiencies often appear differently for physical and mental conditions, but looking at physical conditions–
An attendance deficiency could be caused by doctors’ appointments, physical therapy, a doctor limiting your work, or extended time off due to illness.
A performance deficiency for a physical condition is the inability to perform some physical element of your position, like the inability to lift 70 pounds for a USPS Letter Carrier.
It is very difficult to link a conduct deficiency to a physical condition as conduct requires a certain standard of behavior and physical conditions are unlikely to impact that.
Mental conditions affect your brain and mental health. Mental conditions can be difficult to prove as there are not many diagnostic tests for mental conditions, so it’s important to have supportive documentation and medical professionals on your side.
Your mental condition can be impacted by your physical condition, and OPM Disability Retirement annuitants are often approved for multiple different types of medical conditions.
Some common mental conditions that are accepted for OPM Disability Retirement are; major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Service Deficiencies for Mental Conditions
Like physical conditions, you must prove that your mental condition is causing a service deficiency to qualify for OPM Disability Retirement. Since mental conditions are harder to prove, service deficiencies can vary widely depending on your situation.
An attendance deficiency could again be caused by doctors’ appointments, therapy, or a doctor limiting your work. Mental conditions could also cause excessive use of LWOP or AWOL statuses.
Performance deficiencies for mental conditions are often attributed to an inability to concentrate or an inability to perform complex tasks.
Conduct deficiencies are usually more attributable to a mental condition as opposed to physical. While it can still be difficult to prove, a doctor’s support in linking the condition to a conduct deficiency would often be sufficient.
Absent an actual deficiency in performance, conduct or attendance, an employee may be able to show that their deficiency is incompatible with either useful or efficient service or retention in their position. When an application for disability retirement is based on an employee’s warranted restriction from performing critical or essential job tasks, there is often no record of a decline in actual performance. See Thieman v. Office of Personnel Management, 98 FMSR 5118, 78 MSPR 113 (MSPB 1998); Gometz v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 FMSR 5449, 69 MSPR 115 (MSPB 1995).
Overall, having supportive medical professionals and the right documentation can significantly strengthen your OPM Disability Retirement case no matter what your condition is. It is also important to have an experienced legal team on your side who know how to compile the best possible application for your specific condition.
Leah Bachmeyer-Kille is the Associate Attorney at Harris Federal Law Firm. She graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 2013 and has been working full time at Harris Federal since. She is passionate about improving the lives of federal employees. Contact Leah at (877) 226-2723.