Don't expect courts to go an extra mile

A recent case at the U.S. Court of Appeals illustrates the importance of meticulously documenting any medical condition that may lead you to seek a disability retirement annuity. The case involved Kimberle Rinderle, an industrial engineering technician at Newark Air Force Base, Ohio, who left feder

A recent case at the U.S. Court of Appeals illustrates the importance of meticulously documenting any medical condition that may lead you to seek a disability retirement annuity.

The case involved Kimberle Rinderle, an industrial engineering technician at Newark Air Force Base, Ohio, who left federal service after a reduction in force (RIF) in September 1996. A few months later, Rinderle applied for a disability retirement annuity based on claims of arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The Office of Personnel Management denied Rinderle's application after reviewing the medical information she submitted, concluding that the evidence presented by Rinderle did not prove that she was disabled before her separation from government service and unable to do her job adequately.

An administrative judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board reviewed the case and supported OPM's ruling that Rinderle's medical difficulties had not prevented her from performing her duties before the RIF. In other words, her medical problems were not severe enough to permit her to qualify for a disability annuity.

In her subsequent appeal to the court, Rinderle alleged that she was never told by OPM exactly what medical information she needed to present to support her claim and that the medical information she did submit was not reviewed by qualified medical personnel (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, 98-3396, Jan. 12, 1999).

The problem with Rinderle's appeal was that she could not prove her allegations. As to her first allegation, Rinderle was advised of the medical documentation she needed to present on a form that she signed and submitted in her original disability benefits application filed Jan. 10, 1997. Although the form, which is not discussed at all in this case, may have been poorly written or unclear, Rinderle was given the same form that all other disability applicants receive. If she was unsure as to the type of medical information to submit, there was no record of her seeking clarification or expressing confusion.

In addition, she was advised of the requisite medical information in a letter from OPM dated June 16, 1997. Again, the content of the letter is not in the court record, but there is no evidence that Rinderle did not understand it.

For these reasons, the court reasonably held that Rinderle could not claim that she was not aware of the required documentation.

Also, the court pointed out that it lacked jurisdiction regarding the medical determination made by OPM based on the evidence submitted. The court could not - and in my opinion should not - review the factual determinations that the medical information Rinderle submitted failed to show "a progression of [her] long-standing conditions."

Evaluating medical evidence is best left to those trained to do so, and I don't think the judges on the Court of Appeals have been trained for that kind of work.

Rinderle also argued that medical personnel did not review her submitted documentation. On this issue, Rinderle was on firmer footing, but the court wasn't very helpful to her. It noted that Rinderle failed to identify a statute or regulation requiring OPM to provide a medical panel to review her evidence. The court went on to say that Rinderle had the burden of establishing her disability as a prerequisite for benefits entitlement.

While the court's ruling is technically correct, it does not address the question of how an applicant is supposed to establish that she is entitled to disability benefits if qualified personnel do not review the evidence she submits.

OPM maintained that to the extent a medical analysis of her records was required to establish the validity of her claim, Rinderle was required to provide that medical analysis. The court went along with that position, but only for technical reasons.

In my view, OPM should have qualified personnel to review claims for disability benefits. These people should have sufficient medical knowledge to analyze an applicant's medical evidence and reach an informed decision. It may be up to the applicant to prove her entitlement to disability benefits, but what is the standard of proof? OPM and the court appear to be silent on this question.

Rinderle also submitted a letter from her physician stating that she "should be reconsidered for disability." The court held that this letter was irrelevant because it did not prove that Rinderle was disabled on the day she lost her job. That is true, but why not contact the doctor for additional information?

To this observer, this looks like a case of a former federal employee trying desperately to stay off the unemployment lines, with no one willing to help her.

--Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

NEXT STORY: Popularity Problems

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.