Supreme Court Issues Decision Upholding Puerto Ricans’ Exclusion from SSI

Considering the week’s events, this important Supreme Court decision involving SSI benefits in Puerto Rico may seem less immediately critical, but its impact on the older adults of Puerto Rico cannot be ignored.

Jose Luis Vaello-Madero is 67 years old and lives in Puerto Rico. In 2012, while living in New York, he had a stroke, which disabled him, and, as a result, qualified him for Supplementary Security Income benefits to help him make ends meet. After he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013, he continued receiving his SSI benefits. Then, in 2017, the U.S. government sued him in federal court seeking more than $28,000 for the SSI benefits he received after moving.

SSI beneficiaries are by definition extremely low-income, and Mr. Vaello-Madero didn’t understand he no longer qualified for SSI benefits after a change of address. He appealed to the district court in Puerto Rico, which found no rational basis for excluding residents of the territory from the SSI program in violation of the Constitution's equal protection mandate and granted Mr. Vaello-Madero’s motion for summary judgement. The First Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, prompting the government's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Thursday, April 21st, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, holding that the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not require Congress to extend Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. Residents of Puerto Rico and other territories were excluded from eligibility for SSI benefits when the program was created in 1972.

The Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Kavanaugh, held that Congress’s decision to exempt Puerto Rico’s residents from most federal income and other taxes provides a rational basis for distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of federal benefits, including SSI, with concurrences from Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor was the sole dissenter.

As Justice in Aging noted in the amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court, excluding Puerto Rico’s residents from the SSI program is particularly harmful given the island’s older population, high poverty rate, and number of older adults with disabilities. Puerto Rico has a higher percentage of older residents than any state in the U.S. and more than 40% of Puerto Rico’s residents ages 65 and older live in poverty. Justice in Aging is disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling, and we urge Congress to take steps to correct this injustice.

Kate Lang is a senior staff attorney with Justice in Aging, in its Washington, DC office.