No OMB extensions for disability retirement claims

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled that the Office of Personnel Management has no administrative discretion to extend the time limit for filing a disability retirement claim.

The ruling resulted from a case filed by Edward Pritchett, a former U.S. Postal Service employee whose application for disability benefits was turned down by OPM because he did not file it within the allotted time period.

Due to a disability, Pritchett was put on leave without pay for more than a year. In fact, the record shows that Pritchett had not reported to work on a regular basis for more than 30 months. He received a Notice of Proposed Removal dated July 8, 1991, which notified him to file an application for disability retirement within a year from the date of his eventual separation from the agency. If he did not apply in time, he would lose his retirement with disability benefits.

Pritchett alleged he did not receive this notice until March 9, 1992. Even so, he was reminded by a letter from OPM that was dated March 25, 1992, that Jan. 2, 1992, had been the effective date of his separation, which started the clock ticking for filing a disability claim.

However, Pritchett did not file his application for disability retirement until March 10, 1993, which was two months after the one-year deadline. Consequently, OPM denied Pritchett's application.

Although the one-year rule may be waived in cases of mental incompetence, no such incompetence was alleged in Pritchett's case to OPM. The agency handled this case by the book, noting that records from Pritchett's doctor specifically showed he was mentally competent.

Pritchett appealed OPM's ruling to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which affirmed the decision. Although allegations of mental incompetence were raised before the board, they were rejected as unsupported by any documentary evidence.

Pritchett then took the case to the Court of Appeals, where he argued that his doctor had twice requested from OPM an extension of the one-year deadline because the doctor needed medical records from OPM to help Pritchett prepare the application. However, the court ruled that the applicable statute does not provide for any administrative discretion to extend the one-year time limit. The court ruled that the law prescribes mental incompetence as the only exception to the one-year rule, so it turned thumbs down on Pritchett.

What boggles my mind is that there is no discussion at all concerning the medical ailment that prevented Pritchett from working; nor is there is any information on the medical records that were sought from OPM. Likewise, there was no attempt to look into the legislative intent for permitting an extension of the one-year rule in cases of mental incompetence.

I fault Pritchett because he could have filed a claim within the allotted time and submitted his doctor's records later. I also have a problem with OPM because the reason for the delayed filing was Pritchett's difficulty obtaining records. How can OPM officials accuse someone of missing a deadline when they are at least partially responsible?

Overall, I am disappointed with OPM and the court for their lack of compassion and flexibility. And I'm not very high on Pritchett or his doctor for their handling of this matter.

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

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