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Judge: Congress cannot discriminate against Puerto Rico in Social Security payments

By on February 4, 2019

SAN JUAN – Judge Gustavo Gelpí dismissed Monday a lawsuit that the United States filed against a Puerto Rican man to recoup money in Social Security supplemental payments he obtained after moving to the island.

In his ruling, Gelpi said Article IV of the Constitution confers upon Congress the power to enact all rules and regulations needed to govern U.S. territories.

“This clause, however, is not carte blanche for Congress to switch on and off at its convenience the fundamental constitutional rights to Due Process and Equal Protection enjoyed by a birthright United States citizen who relocates from a State to Puerto Rico. Congress, likewise, cannot demean and brand said United States citizen while in Puerto Rico with a stigma of inferior citizenship to that of his brethren nationwide. To hold otherwise would run afoul of the sacrosanct principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence that ‘All Men are Created Equal,’” he argued.

José Luis Vaello Madero is a Social Security Administration (SSA) Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability beneficiary.

SSI is a federal supplemental program funded by tax revenue, and beneficiaries must be U.S. residents, which excludes Puerto Rico, according to the lawsuit, which says Vaello Madero resides at Barrio Las Carreras, Loíza, and that after moving to Puerto Rico on July 2013, he failed to notify SSA of his move.

“This caused the Social Security Administration to continue making payments to the defendant who misappropriated Social Security benefits and payments from July, 2013 until August 8, 2016. The total amount of Social Security Title XVI benefits illegally cashed by the defendant amounts to the sum of $28,081.00,” the lawsuit reads.

Vaello Madero said he moved to Loíza to help care for his wife, who had previously moved to the island municipality. He continued to receive SSI disability payments through direct deposit into his New York bank account. In June 2016, approximately one month before his 62nd birthday, Vaello Madero applied to receive Title II Social Security benefits. He was assisted in his application by an employee at the SSA’s office in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

The SSA employee noted that Vaello Madero was already in SSA’s beneficiary database and asked him if he was a resident of New York.

“After confirming that he no longer lived in New York, he was told that in order to be able to receive his Title II social security benefits he could no longer receive SSI disability payments. He was asked to sign a few forms so as to finalize his application. Vaello-Madero was not aware at the time of his move that moving to Puerto Rico would affect his ability to receive SSI disability benefits,” an answer to the complaint says.

In support of his motion for summary judgment, Vaello Madero argues that the Social Security Act’s exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI benefits program under section 1382c(e) violates the equal protection guarantees of the Due Process Clause.

The United States, however, argues, that Congress’ determinations as to eligibility requirements for government benefits hold a “strong presumption” of constitutionality, and that “Congress’ authority under the Territorial Clause enables it to pass economic and social welfare legislation for the territories where there is a rational basis for such actions.”

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón announced that following the judge’s decision, she introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the SSI benefit to Puerto Rico.

The congresswoman had filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

“The territorial status of Puerto Rico has been the cause of discrimination against American citizens residing on the island by lowering American citizenship to a secondary category. The decision of the federal district court today is consistent with our claim. Our fight for the Equality of Puerto Rico in all forums…and I continue this particular struggle of equal treatment in the SSI program so it is extended to the island by filing federal legislation to put in effect the determination of Judge Gelpí,” González Colón said.

“Today immediately, after the judge’s decision, we filed bipartisan legislation HR 947 along with Congressmen Darren Soto, José Serrano, Auna Amata Radewagen, Stacey Plaskett, Kilili Sablan, and San Nicolas to extend the benefit of SSI to Puerto Rico,” the commissioner added.

“Unlike traditional Social Security, SSI does not require a beneficiary to make payments to the program to qualify for program benefits. An American in the continental United States who receives SSI is as likely to pay federal taxes as an American who lives in Puerto Rico. There is no justifiable reason for this legal discrimination,” she reiterated.

“There can be no justification for discrimination against Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam. Families with children and adults with disabilities already have to juggle a thousand things to pay for therapies, treatments and achieve family income. SSI is the financial help they need to be able to at least live without fear of losing their home or having food security. Our families cannot be less than those who live in the states or other territories,” the commissioner stressed.

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