A Federal appellate court ruled on Friday that Puerto Ricans are eligible for Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under the U.S. Constitution.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Judge Juan R. Torruella concluded that the exclusion of otherwise eligible Puerto Rico residents from the federal SSI program “is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest” and violates the Equal Protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
The decision, U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, could ultimately enable hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rico residents to receive SSI benefits, which are currently available to low income individuals who are older than sixty-five, blind or disabled and live in the fifty states, the District of Columbia or the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Jose Vaello-Madero moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1985 and began receiving SSI disability benefits in 2012. He returned to Puerto Rico in July of 2013 and continued to receive his disability benefit payments in his New York bank account until August 2016. He has argued that he was unaware that his move to Puerto Rico would end his eligibility for SSI.
In August 2017, the U.S. government sued him to collect $28,081 in payments he had received after leaving New York. In February 2019, U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpí rejected the U.S. government’s claim, stating that to “disparately classify United States Citizens residing in Puerto Rico” would run “counter to the very essence and fundamental guarantees of the Constitution itself.”
Citing previous Supreme Court decisions that permit Congress to treat U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico differently from other U.S. citizens in federal public assistance programs as long as Congress has a “rational basis” for its actions, Judge Gelpi noted 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.”
On appeal, Judge Torruella agreed. He considered and then rejected the federal government’s arguments as to why excluding residents of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico from SSI could be rational: (1) the tax status of Puerto Rico, and (2) the cost of extending the benefit to the territory.
With respect to taxes, the Court noted that Puerto Rico pays substantial sums into the federal treasury through the IRS and has contributed more than some states over the years despite not paying federal income tax on Puerto Rico sourced income.
The Court also quoted Vaello-Madero’s argument that previous tax liability has no bearing on SSI eligibility, noting that “any individual with earnings low enough to qualify for SSI will not be paying federal income tax regardless of where they reside.”
On this topic, the Court concluded that “the idea that one needs to earn their eligibility [for a program that benefits the needy] by the payment of federal income tax is antithetical to the entire premise of the program.”
The Court also rejected the argument that extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico would be too costly to the federal program, concluding that the “Fifth Amendment does not permit the arbitrary treatment of individuals who would otherwise qualify for SSI but for their residency in Puerto Rico.”
The U.S. government is expected to appeal the ruling.