Court Case Addresses Whether the US Should Extend SSI Benefits to Puerto Ricans

May 8, 2019

On February 4, 2019, U.S. District Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi issued an opinion in USA v. Jose Luis Vaello Madero, Case No. 17-2133 (GAG) (D.P.R. 2019), granting Vaello Madero’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against him by the federal government to recover over $28,000 in SSI disability benefits he was paid afterhe moved from New York to Puerto Rico.

The Social Security Act excludes Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, from the SSIbenefits program under 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(e). However, according to JudgeGelpi, “in accordance with [United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744, 774 (2013)], the denial of SSI disability benefits to United States citizens in Puerto Rico isunconstitutional as ‘a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by theFifth Amendment of the Constitution.’” Despite the government’s argument thatthe cost of including Puerto Rico in the SSI program would be too expensive, especially since residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal income tax, whichfunds the SSI program, Judge Gelpi explained that “this is not a valid justification for creating classifications of United States citizens and justifying the same under the lax scrutiny of social and economic legislation. While line drawing is necessary for Congress to pass social and economic legislation, it is never a valid reason for disparate treatment of United States citizen’s fundamental rights… [which] are the same in the States as in the Territories, without distinction. Equal Protection and Due Process are fundamental rights afforded to every United States citizen, including those who under the United States flag make Puerto Rico their home. All United States citizens must trust that their fundamental constitutional rights will be safeguarded everywhere within the Nation, be in a State or Territory.”

In response to the District Court’s decision, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (R) introduced H.R. 947, the “SupplementalSecurity Income Equality Act,” which would extend the SSI benefits program to Puerto Rico as wellas Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. More details are available in a press release(“The Resident Commissioner files a bipartisan billto make SSI extensive to Puerto Rico”) issued by the Congresswoman’s office.

The government is likely to appeal Judge Gelpi’sdecision. SSA has not yet published POMS or an Emergency Message on processing SSI claims made in Puerto Rico.

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