Exclusion of Guam Resident from SSI Program Violates Equal Protection

Empire Justice Center July 31, 2020

Recent decisions in two cases are described as signaling a “sea change” for access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in the U.S. territories.  SSI is currently restricted to U.S. citizens living in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.  In addition to Puerto Rico, other U.S. territories excluded from SSI are Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. But in the April 2020 edition of this newsletter, we reported an important First Circuit decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, 956 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. Apr. 10, 2020) finding it unconstitutional for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny SSI to otherwise qualified individuals based on their residence in Puerto Rico.


We reported a similar case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Guam, filed by a plaintiff denied SSI based on her residency in that U.S. territory.  On June 19, 2020, the Guam District Court followed much of the reasoning in the Puerto Rico decision, Vaello-Madero, in finding it unconstitutional for the plaintiff to be excluded from the SSI program based on her residency in Guam.  The exclusion was found to violate the equal protection clause in making an irrational distinction compared to the eligibility of residents of the Northern Mariana Islands. Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Admin., et. al., No. 18-cv-00044)(D. Guam Jun. 19, 2020)(J. Tydingco-Gatewood).


The Schaller case was filed in Guam by a claimant whose twin sister in Pennsylvania qualifies for benefits based on the same permanent disability diagnosed at birth, myotonic dystrophy.  In contrast with  the plaintiff’s struggle to support herself and perform activities of daily living, her sister in Pennsylvania is described as leading a full, independent life despite her disabling limitations due in part to the income security provided by SSI.  After her mother passed away, the plaintiff moved to Guam temporarily to live with a different sister, her legal guardian, and saw her benefits cease as a result.  She moved to Guam permanently in 2008.  Her twin sister in Pennsylvania also sued SSA to be able to visit her family on Guam for more than 30 days or move to Guam without loss of her benefits.  That case was dismissed by the    District Court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Administrative,  2020 WL 956422 (W.D Pa. Mar. 20, 2020).


SSA tried to rely on Califano v. Gautier Torres, 435 U.S. 1 (1978) and Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S. 651 (1980) to justify the disparate treatment of residents of Guam.  But as in the Vaello-Madero decision, the Court distinguished Gautier Torres as involving the right to travel, not an equal protection claim.  Harris, meanwhile, involved block grants and not the discriminatory treatment of residents under SSI.


The inclusion of the Northern Mariana Islands in the SSI program effectively undercut most of SSA’s arguments for excluding Guam. SSA proffered arguments that could be used to treat a territory differently compared to the 50 states, but not compared to residents of one territory versus another.


The government relied on Guam tax status to justify the exclusion.  The Schaller Court found it was inconsistent with the status of Northern Mariana Islands, which also generally did not pay federal income taxes.  Schaller at *11.  It was also irrational to look to the significant cost of including Guam, because while it is a reason to reject a program as a whole, it cannot justify discriminatory treatment of one group of citizens.  Id. at *13.  The court also rejected the argument that the expansion would be disruptive to the economy of Guam.


The Schaller court cited the lower court ruling in Vaello Madero, to note that U.S. citizens residing in Guam “are the very essence of a politically powerless group, with no Presidential nor Congressional vote, only a non-voting [delegate] representing their interests in Congress.” Id. at *19-20, quoting U.S. v. Vaello Madero, 356 F. Supp 3d 208, 214 (D.P.R. 2019), aff’d 956 F. 3d 12 (1st Cir. 2020).


SSA is now enjoined from excluding the plaintiff, though not necessarily other Guam residents, from SSI.  An expansion of SSI could affect an estimated 24,000 residents in Guam.  An expansion of the SSI program in Puerto Rico would impact an estimated 700,000 residents.  It is not clear at this time if SSA is appealing either of these decisions.