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As you may have guessed, the answer to this question depends largely on the specifics of your particular situation. Consider the recent case of Anthony Alonzo (Alonzo vs. The Department of Veterans Affairs, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Case No. SF0752100202-I-1, June 2012). Mr. Alonzo alleges that he suffered numerous physical and mental medical conditions as a direct result of a hostile work environment while employed as a social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a result of his medical problems, he was ultimately approved for OPM disability retirement.

Several years later, Mr. Alonzo filed a petition with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) alleging that he was “forced to retire… due to intolerable working conditions and unlawful discrimination that made him totally disabled.” His petition (and all subsequent appeals), however, were denied/dismissed due to lack of evidence and untimeliness. When I read the court’s decision, I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Alonzo chose to represent himself during the appeal process.

Had Mr. Alonzo consulted an attorney who is familiar with federal employment law when he initially experienced a hostile work environment, he may have been able to avoid disability retirement altogether. For example, an experienced attorney could have worked on behalf of Mr. Alonzo to force the Agency to address the issue of a hostile work environment and perhaps aid Mr. Alonzo in obtaining a “reasonable accommodation,” such as reassignment to a similar position in a different department. Furthermore, an experienced attorney could have explored Mr. Alonzo’s allegations that his medical conditions were directly caused by his work environment to determine if Mr. Alonzo was a candidate for Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWCP) benefits. In short, Mr. Alonzo may have been in a much better position today had he explored his options with an experienced attorney (disability retirement is the equivalent of a 60% pay cut after the first year).

If you are a federal employee and are currently experiencing a hostile work environment (or any employment-related issue), consider contacting an experienced federal employment attorney to discuss your options. Federal employment law is incredibly complex, and an exceptional attorney can help you avoid the many potential pitfalls and setbacks that plague this area of law.

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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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