Untimely Disability Retirement Application

In Mendiola v Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the appellant did not establish that he was mentally incompetent for the purpose of excusing the one-year deadline for filing a disability application after separation. No. 2008-3014, 2008 WL 2510614 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (nonprecedential). The appellant was a machine tool operator at Kelly Air Force Base until he was separated from service on September 11, 1999. In June 2005, the appellant filed a CSRS disability retirement application. Applications for CSRS disability retirement must be filed with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) before separation from service or within one year thereafter. See 5 U.S.C. §8337(b). This requirement is only waived when the former employee was mentally incompetent within one year after separation.

The appellant submitted affidavits stating that he began suffering from various medical conditions and had several surgeries after his separation. OPM dismissed the appellant's application as untimely, stating that the documentation the appellant provided was insufficient to show that he was unable to file his application within the one-year limit. The appellant requested reconsideration, and OPM affirmed its dismissal, stating that none of the additional medical documentation supplied by the appellant suggested that his medical conditions would have made him mentally incompetent within a year of his separation from service.

The appellant appealed OPM's decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). He asserted that he was unaware of the time limit and that he waited to apply for disability retirement because he was hoping to return to work. The appellant stated in his appeal, "I may not be able to say I was mentally incompetent [but] there was a lot of stress and depression on my part from not having a job and under one surgery after another." The medical documentation he submitted stated that during his severe depression and stress period in 1999 and 2000, it was not unreasonable to infer that he had at least some degree of mental incompetence. Additionally, another doctor stated that the prescribed muscle relaxant that the appellant was taking in 1999 may have "altered his mentation."

At the MSPB hearing, the appellant had witnesses testify that he did know about the time limit for disability filing and that since his separation, he was suffering from mental and physical health problems. An administrative judge (AJ) affirmed the OPM's decision, issuing an initial decision that the appellant did not establish by preponderant evidence that he was mentally incompetent at the time of his separation or within one year thereafter. The Board denied the appellant's petition for a full Board review of the initial decision.

The appellant appealed the MSPB initial decision to the Federal Circuit. The court's review of MSPB decisions is limited. See 5 U.S.C. §7703(c). The court held that the appellant did not establish any legal error in the MSPB's interpretation of 5 U.S.C. §8337(b) that provides the one-year filing period for filing disability applications is extendable only if the applicant was or became mentally incompetent during that period. As applied to late filing under §8337(b), "mentally incompetent" means that the applicant had "no more than some minimal capacity to manage his own affairs." French v. OPM, 810 F.2d 1118, 1119 (Fed. Cir. 1987). The court concluded that the appellant's lack of knowledge of the law and the evidence of his medical conditions did not, as the law requires, establish that he was mentally incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence. See 5 C.F.R. §1201.56(a).

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