Social Security’s Exclusion of Puerto Ricans Faces High Court Scrutiny

The case involving the U.S. territory is one of two involving Social Security benefits that the justices agreed Monday to hear in the coming months.

Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed from the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Management services facility in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Supplemental Social Security Income provides benefits to people in 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands but not Puerto Rico.

Agreeing to decide whether that exclusion is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court took up a challenge by Jose Luis Vaello-Madero.

The Puerto Rico-born American had been living in New York for almost 30 years when he began receiving SSI payments in 2012. After he moved back to Puerto Rico to help care for his wife, however, the Social Security Administration not only terminated his future benefits in 2016, it told Vaello-Madero to turn over some $28,081 that it said it had “overpaid him” for the three years that he had been living in Puerto Rico. 

Residents of Puerto Rico are eligible for a separate program, Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, but the program is more exclusive and less generous than Social Security. 

Attorneys for Vaello-Madero argue that Congress violated the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment by not extending the benefits to Puerto Ricans. Following a District Court victory that the First Circuit affirmed, the United States petitioned the high court to reverse.

Hermann Ferre, an attorney for Vaello-Madero with the New York firm Curtis Mallet-Prevost did not return a request for comment, nor did the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Per their custom, the justices did not issue any comment Monday in taking up the case. The order list contains dozens of other cases denied writs of certiorari and just one other grant, another case having to do with Social Security.

In this one, though, it is the commissioner who is defending as petitioner David Babcock seeks reversal of a Sixth Circuit defeat.

A military technician and a flight instructor with the National Guard unit, Babcock was given reduced pensions from Social Security because he already received pensions from the Civil Service Retirement System.

Such determinations are not unusual, but Babcock would receive more Social Security benefits if an exception to that reduction for payments “based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service” applies to dual status technicians.

Babcock’s attorney Neal Katyal with Hogan Lovells did not respond to a request for comment. 

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