A U.S. District Court Judge has ruled that the federal government is violating the Constitution by prohibiting people who live in Puerto Rico from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. United States v. Vaello Madero, 356 F. Supp. 3d 208 (D. Puerto Rico 2019).
Many of us have encountered unfortunate clients in Mr. Vaello-Madero’s situation. He had lived in New York for almost thirty years. He was a U.S. citizen collecting SSI disability benefits, which were direct-deposited in his New York bank account. In 2013, he moved to Puerto Rico and continued to receive his SSI benefits, unaware that his relocation would affect his entitlement. But in June 2016, he learned from the Social Security Administration (SSA) that his benefits had been discontinued and that he had been overpaid from 2013 through 2016.
In 2017, the government filed a civil action against Mr. Vaello-Madero to collect a $28,081.00 overpayment. After some legal skirmishes, the court agreed with Mr. Vaello-Madero that the Social Security’s Act exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI program violates the equal protection guarantees of the Due Process Clause. It rejected the government’s arguments, including claims that extending the program to Puerto Rico would be too expensive, especially given that Puerto Ricans do not pay income taxes, which fund the program. The court relied, inter alia on United States v. Windsor, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
The court, referring to Mr. Vaello-Madero, held that Congress “cannot demean and brand said United States citizen while in Puerto Rico with a stigma of inferior citizenship to that of his brethren nationwide.” Whether the government will appeal this ruling remains to be seen, In the meantime, legislation has been proposed by Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon (D-PR-At Large) to extend SSI to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.