Rejections sometimes are justified

Although federal employees are often on the receiving end of unjust treatment sometimes they get exactly what they deserve. In such a case the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently reviewed a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) concerning the government's denial of a disability retirement claim filed by a former federal employee. Skin Disorder Forced Change The case involved Charles Cook employed as a sheet metal mechanic by the Naval Air Systems Command in Pensacola Fla. from 1987 until January 1993. In an unfortunate turn of events Cook developed "contact dermatitis " a skin condition resulting from exposure to sheet metal fiberglass and other irritants. A Navy physician confirmed this condition and recommended that the service prohibit Cook from working with such materials.

In January 1993 the Navy reassigned Cook to a position as a taxi driver to accommodate his disability. The reassignment did not involve a change of grade or pay.

Resignation Then Appeal

On April 2 1993 Cook resigned from the Navy. One year later he applied for disability retirement and cited contact dermatitis as his disability. Officials at the Office of Personnel Management turned Cook down asserting that he had not shown that his condition prevented him from performing his taxi-driving duties at the time he resigned. Cook requested reconsideration but OPM upheld its original decision.

Cook then appealed to the MSPB which affirmed OPM's denial of disability benefits.

Cook then went to the federal appeals court. In reviewing this case the court noted that to qualify for disability retirement a federal employee must have suffered a disease or injury that prevents him from rendering "useful and efficient service in the employee's position and not be qualified for reassignment."

OPM and the MSPB argued that Cook failed to meet these requirements. But Cook countered that his Navy supervisor counseled him to resign. The court however concluded that his supervisor's advice to resign was irrelevant. It said the Navy had "accommodated" Cook by reassigning him to the taxi driver position.Government disability annuities are not given to anyone who asks. One has to qualify and the court correctly cited the criteria for qualifying in its ruling.

Clearly Cook did not meet these requirements. His contact dermatitis did not prevent him from driving a taxi. Cook should not have expected the Navy to do any more than retrain him and accommodate his medical condition by finding him another job.

Even if his supervisor did privately counsel him to resign Cook still would not deserve disability retirement. And if that supervisor put undue pressure on Cook to resign then Cook should have filed a grievance against him instead of claiming entitlement to disability retirement benefits.

Illness aside Cook got what he deserved. No more no less.

*****

Case No. 96-3299 Charles W. Cook v. Office of Personnel Management U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Oct. 16 1996.v

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week.

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