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Uncharted Territory: Access to Benefits for Residents of Puerto Rico

United States v. Vaello-Madero

No. 20-303,
956 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 2020),
cert. granted, 141 S. Ct. 1462 (2021).

Oral argument scheduled for Nov. 9, 2021.

Issue: Whether Congress violated the equal-protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by establishing Supplemental Security Income—a program that provides benefits to needy aged, blind, and disabled individuals—in the 50 States and the District of Columbia, and in the Northern Mariana Islands pursuant to a negotiated covenant, but not extending it to Puerto Rico.

The Supreme Court is poised to determine whether residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories have equal rights to receive federal Supplemental Security  Benefits (SSI). Currently, residents of Puerto Rico cannot receive SSI simply because they reside in Puerto Rico.

The respondent, José Luis Vaello-Madero, challenged the categorical exclusion of residents of Puerto Rico from the SSI program. Vaello-Madero was born in Puerto Rico in 1954 and moved to New York in 1985. United States v. Vaello-Madero, 956 F.3d 12, 15 (1st Cir. 2020). In 2012, he began receiving SSI payments after experiencing severe health problems. Id. After Vaello-Madero moved back to Puerto Rico to be closer to his extended family and to help care for his wife, the Social Security Administration notified him that it was revoking his SSI benefits retroactively to the date when he established residence in Puerto Rico. Id. at 15-16. His benefits were revoked solely on the basis that Vaello-Madero was residing “outside of the U.S.,” despite the fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Id. The United States Government sued Vaello-Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI payments he received while residing on the island. Id. at 16. Vaello-Madero argued that denying SSI benefits to eligible individuals solely because of their status as Puerto Rico residents violated equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico agreed, ruling for Vaello-Madero. United States v. Vaello-Madero, 356 F. Supp. 3d 208 (D.P.R. 2019). The district court held that Congress’s separate and disparate classification of Puerto Rico’s residents from those on the mainland United States violated the essence and fundamental guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. Id. at 213. The court explained that “[c]lassifying a group of the Nation’s poor and medically neediest United States citizens as ‘second tier’ simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is by no means rational.” Id. at 214. The Government subsequently appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

A unanimous First Circuit panel affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that there was no rational basis to exclude otherwise eligible residents of Puerto Rico from a uniform national program intended to benefit the neediest individuals in the nation.Vaello-Madero, 956 F.3d at 32. The court further rejected the Government’s argument that the disparate treatment of residents of Puerto Rico was justified because they do not pay federal income taxes, noting that Puerto Rico pays more into the federal treasury than taxpayers in six states and the Northern Mariana Islands. Id. at 24. The court also held that it was illogical to maintain that Puerto Rico residents needed to pay federal income tax to qualify for SSI, given that few SSI recipients on the U.S. mainland pay federal income taxes due to their low income. Id. at 27.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Puerto Rico’s poor who are blind, disabled, or over 65 are dependent on Puerto Rico’s Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program (AABD) because they are excluded from receiving SSI. Policy Basics: Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, (Jan. 15, 2021). However, those benefits are extremely limited (approximately $75/month), id., a fraction of the average SSI benefit ($591/month) received on the mainland, Supplemental Data for The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2021 to 2031, Congressional Budget Office (Feb. 2021). Many people with severe disabilities depend on this money to survive.

SSI benefits provide a lifeline to aged, blind, and disabled Americans. Denying residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories SSI solely because they live in a U.S. territory is particularly harmful, given the islands’ high disability and poverty rates. Americans living in U.S. territories deserve to be treated equally. The Court will determine whether this type of discrimination against residents of Puerto Rico is unconstitutional.

Barbara Jones

bjones@aarp.org

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