Timely Ruling on the Supplemental Security Income for Puerto Rico

Timely Ruling on the Supplemental Security Income for Puerto Rico

Published on April 10, 2020

Rosanna close-up
Director, Washington D.C. Office

Is the Denial of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to Residents of Puerto Rico Unconstitutional?

In a world where it seems there is only bad news, I’d like to share some good news that recently came out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit regarding the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and its extension to the residents of Puerto Rico.

The Supplemental Security Income provides financial assistance to people over 65 years old or to individuals with impediments in the 50 states, Washington DC, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico receives instead a much smaller annual block grant to run the predecessor Aid to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled (AABD) program. Whereas Puerto Rico currently receives $24 to $26 million a year to run the AABD, if it participated in the SSI, beneficiaries would be eligible to receive between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion each year.

On February 4, U.S. District Judge Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí issued a ruling regarding United States v. Vaello-Madero.  For 28 years, Vaello-Madero was a New York resident and received monthly SSI disability benefits.  He moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 and for three years continued receiving the SSI payments to his New York bank account. In 2017, the Social Security Administration initiated a collection process for overpaid benefits, after his relocation to the US territory, where residents don’t qualify for the SSI.  Vaello-Madero argues that the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI benefits program violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees.  The U.S. asserts that the denial of SSI disability payments to Puerto Rico does not violate the Fifth amendment. The U.S. District Court Judge granted Vaello-Madero a motion for summary judgment.

Today,  April 10, 2020, Judge Juan Torruella, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson and Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston issued a ruling that questions Congressional action denying Puerto Rico of such benefits under the guise of protecting the fiscal integrity of government programs:

Therefore, while we respect the legislature’s authority to make even unwise decisions to purportedly protect the fiscal integrity of SSI and the federal government itself, the Fifth Amendment does not permit the arbitrary treatment of individuals who would otherwise qualify for SSI but for their residency in Puerto Rico (those plausibly considered least able to “bear the hardships of an inadequate standard of living”).”

In its conclusion, the court affirms:

“The categorical exclusion of otherwise eligible Puerto Rico residents from SSI is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. In addition to the record established by the parties, we have considered even conceivable theoretical reasons for the differential treatment conceded by the government. Having found no set of facts, nor Appellant having alleged any additional theory, establishing a rational basis for the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from SSI coverage, such exclusion of the residents of Puerto Rico is declared invalid. For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s grant of Appellee’s motion for summary judgment and the denial of the United States’ cross motion for summary judgment.”

Yes, this does not preclude the possibility of an appeal, but this is a big step forward for Puerto Rico’s residents.  This week, we asked Congress to ensure SSI benefits are extended, particularly during this time of crisis.  In light of this new news, we intend to keep on pushing.