ABA brief asks Supreme Court to affirm that Puerto Rico residents eligible for SSI benefits

The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to uphold an appeals court decision that found barring residents of Puerto Rico from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The federal SSI program provides monthly payments to adults and children with a disability or blindness who have income and resources below specific financial limits, in addition to people 65 and older without disabilities who meet financial qualifications. But the residents of Puerto Rico, as well as other U.S. territories, other than the Northern Mariana Islands, are barred by federal law from participating.

The ABA brief supports respondent José Luis Vaello-Madero, who lived in New York from 1985 until he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013, to care for his wife. He kept receiving SSI benefits until told in 2016 that he was ineligible. The Social Security Administration subsequently filed civil action against Vaello-Madero seeking the return of more than $28,000.

The ABA House of Delegates adopted policy in August 2020 that supports an interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment to guarantee that all persons residing in a territory of the United States who are otherwise eligible to receive federal benefits shall receive them without regard to residence.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, contending that only Congress and not the courts can change current federal law affecting SSI benefits. DOJ maintains the potential cost of providing SSI benefits to needy Puerto Rico residents of about $2 billion annually and cites this as a rational basis for withholding those benefits.

But the ABA brief challenges that contention. “The mere fact that excluding needy Puerto Rico residents saves money does not make it rational,” the ABA brief said. “The choice to single out and exclude residents of Puerto Rico and other territories ... is arbitrary. It is entirely unrelated to the stated purpose of saving money, for many other distinctions would save costs in equal or far greater measure; it is therefore not rational under this (Supreme) Court’s precedents.”

The high court has yet to set oral argument for the case for its term beginning next month. The law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP filed the brief pro bono on behalf of the ABA.