United States v. Vaello Madero

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The Supplemental Social Security (SSI) program is one of our Nation's most successful social safety net programs, recognizing the inherent dignity of millions of the most vulnerable, low-income Americans who are aged, blind, or disabled by providing them with a basic income. However, while these critical benefits are taken for granted in most American communities, they are not available to otherwise eligible residents of most U.S. territories for no other reason than where they happen to live. As a result, unless something changes these vulnerable U.S. citizens will be shortchanged more than $23 billion over the next ten years, resulting in life and death consequences. 

This discrimination isn't just wrong, it's unconstitutional. 

In 2012, José Luis Vaello Madero began receiving SSI disability benefits after he became afflicted with severe health issues while living in New York State. The following year, he moved from New York to Puerto Rico to help care for his wife, who also had significant health concerns. Not realizing his change in address meant he was no longer eligible for SSI, he did not question when his benefits continued. In 2016, after Mr. Vaello Madero applied for retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration realized he now lived in Puerto Rico and ceased payments. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit invoking a criminal statute against Mr. Vaello Madero to recover the $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while he was a resident of Puerto Rico. 

After the court appointed pro bono counsel, Mr. Vaello Madero argued that SSI discrimination against residents of U.S. territories violates the Constitution's guarantee of Equal Protection. The district court and a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, concluding that discrimination against residents of Puerto Rico with respect to the SSI program fails judicial review under any standard. 

In March, the Supreme Court rejected the U.S. Department of Justice's request to summarily reverse the unanimous decisions below and granted full review. Briefing in the case will be complete by September 2021, with oral argument to follow in October or November 2021.

Mr. Vaello Madero is represented pro bono by the law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP, with partner Hermann Ferré serving as Counsel of Record, and Juan Perla as lead associate. Other team members include associates Robert Groot and Andrew Larkin.

Equally American does not represent Mr. Vaello Madero but is supporting his case and efforts to achieve parity in SSI funding through a broad range of advocacy, both inside and outside the Supreme Court.

Case Filings

Supreme Court of the United States 

Merits Stage

Certiorari Stage

U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit 

U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico 

Case Updates

Press Coverage

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