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It would seem that more often than not, laws are written in vague, unclear words that are nearly impossible to construe on face value. Rather the laws are interpreted via a number of methods, including guidelines, court decisions, and regulations. Such is the case when trying to figure out what makes someone eligible for disability retirement.

Whether filing for FERS or CSRS, an applicant for disability retirement must be “unable because of disease or injury, to render useful and efficient service in the employee’s position.” However, the statute fails to state what exactly “useful and efficient” means.

The MSPB court in Henderson v. OPM picked up the slack and explained what this requirement entails. The employee in that case was a Sales and Service Associate with the USPS, and suffered from heat intolerance to the extent that she would become ill if she was in a setting above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem was that the Postal policy was to keep the temperature at 78 degrees, which kept the employee from coming in. Citing OPM’s implementing regulations, the Court held that the law’s requirement that the disability prevent “useful and efficient” service means that the employee can make one of two showings. They can either: (1) show that the medical condition caused a deficiency in performance, attendance, or conduct; or (2) show that the medical condition is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the position. The first method requires a showing that the disability has already affected the employee, be it through poor performance, inability to attend, or inappropriate behavior. The second method allows the employee who hasn’t yet been affected by the disability to show that the medical condition is inconsistent with working in general, working in a particular line of work, or working in a particular type of setting.

However, despite the Court’s best efforts, there still arises a lot of uncertainty as to whether a medical condition allows them to collect disability retirement benefits.

If you are confronted with this issue, as most OPM Disability applicants are, it is often extremely beneficial to discuss your individual facts with an expert OPM Disability Attorney who works on these types of cases daily.

Author Photo

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative.

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