U.S. Supreme Court

Denying disability benefits to Puerto Rico residents violates equal protection rights, ABA amicus brief says

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The ABA filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday arguing that denying disability benefits to residents of Puerto Rico violates the equal protection clause.

The ABA brief supports José Luis Vaello-Madero, who is seeking benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program, according to an ABA press release. The program provides monthly payments to low-income people with disabilities.

Vaello-Madero received the benefits while living in New York. He moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 to care for his wife and continued receiving the benefits until 2016, when he was told that he wasn’t eligible for the money. The Social Security Administration sued Vaello-Madero to recover more than $28,000 that he received in benefits while in Puerto Rico.

The ABA brief noted that the ABA House of Delegates adopted policy in 2020 stating that the equal protection clause guarantees all qualified residents of U.S. territories the right to receive uniform federal benefits, including SSI benefits.

The brief said the Supreme Court should affirm the ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Boston, which held that denying SSI benefits to otherwise eligible residents of Puerto Rico violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee.

The government had argued that it was rational to withhold SSI benefits because Puerto Rico residents are exempted from many federal tax obligations. But the Puerto Rico residents who would benefit from the SSI program don’t benefit from the tax exemptions in any meaningful way, the ABA brief said.

“The ultimate purpose of the SSI program is to provide basic financial support to particularly needy Americans who cannot support themselves—and this fundamental purpose simply has nothing to do with where particular Americans reside,” the ABA brief said. “In this vein, the current SSI regime strikingly treats U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico less favorably than many noncitizens residing in the states, who often can qualify for SSI.”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case March, SCOTUSblog reports.

The case is United States v. Vaello-Madero.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom prepared the brief pro bono on behalf of the ABA.

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