MSPB Overrules Line of Cases Requiring FERS Disability Retirement Applicants to Show Nexus between Medical Condition and Specific Job Tasks or Show Unambiguously and Without Contradiction that Applicant Cannot Perform Position’s Tasks

An employee appealing an adverse disability retirement claim has to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his medical condition renders him unable to provide useful and efficient service in the employee’s position, the Merit System Protection Board (the Board) ruled last week. Consequently, a line of cases stating a “general” rule requiring FERS disability retirement applicants to show a nexus between their medical conditions and their specific job tasks, and an “exception” to that rule allowing the Board to link the condition and the work tasks where the evidence unambiguously and without contradiction indicates that the applicant cannot perform the tasks required of his position, has been overruled.

Wardell Jackson, a Level 6 Mail Processing Clerk, completed his Federal Employees’ Retirement System (FERS) disability retirement application, citing uncontrollable hypertension and glaucoma. OPM denied his application and Jackson appealed.

At the hearing, the administrative judge explained that the “general” rule in disability retirement cases is that the medical evidence itself must demonstrate how the employee’s conditions affect his ability to perform specific job tasks. In Jackson’s case, the administrative judge found that, with one exception that the administrative judge found unpersuasive, none of Jackson’s doctors showed how his medical conditions affected his specific work duties. The administrative judge also found that Jackson’s medical evidence failed to unambiguously and without contradiction show that his condition prevented him from performing the duties of his position and ultimately affirmed OPM’s decision.

On appeal, the Board explained that the Board’s recent decision in Henderson v. Office of Personnel Management overruled a line of cases that seemed to follow the “general” rule as applied to Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) disability retirement applicants. Under CSRS regulations, CSRS employees can establish entitlement to disability retirement benefits and demonstrate that he is unable, because of disease or injury, to render useful and efficient service in his by showing either that his medical condition caused a deficiency in the employee’s performance, attendance or conduct or that his medical condition is incompatible with useful or efficient service in his position.

In Henderson, the Board made clear that it would not require the applicant to rely solely on medical evidence alone, but would consider all relevant evidence, including clinical findings, medical opinions and subjective evidence of pain. In addition, the burden of proof in every case is by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning more likely true than not, and that to require an employee to present medical evidence that is unambiguous and without contradiction would impose a higher burden of proof than is authorized by law.

In extending Henderson’s rationale to FERS disability retirement cases, the Board explained that both the FERS and CSRS statutes and implementing regulations contain the same pertinent language and found no reason not to apply the rationale in Henderson to FERS disability retirement cases. Therefore, the issue in Jackson’s case, like the question in CSRS disability retirement cases following Henderson, was whether his medical conditions prevented him from rendering useful and efficient service in his position. If the totality of the evidence presented, including subjective and non-medical evidence, makes that conclusion more likely true than not, then that question must be answered in the affirmative and the applicant has established his entitlement to disability retirement benefits.

In Jackson’s case, the administrative judge’s initial decision was issued before the Board’s decision in Henderson. Therefore, the Board remanded the appeal to decide whether Jackson met his burden of establishing his entitlement to disability retirement benefits under Henderson.

The case, Jackson v. Office of Personnel Management, is available here.

Posted in Case Law Update

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