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, after suffering a debilitating illness, José Luis Vaello-Madero began receiving SSI disability benefits while living in New York State. The following year, he moved to Puerto Rico to be closer to family. Unaware that his change in address meant he was no longer eligible for SSI, he continued to receive SSI benefits directly in a bank account that had been set up for that purpose by a non-profit organization in New York. In 2016, after he registered for Social Security retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration realized that he now lived in Puerto Rico, and ceased SSI payments. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Mr. Vaello-Madero, invoking a criminal statute to recover $28,081 in SSI benefits he had received while living in Puerto Rico. With the help of pro bono lawyers, he raised as a defense that it is unconstitutional to deny SSI to U.S. citizens solely because they live in a territory rather than a State.

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 on November 9, 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 participating as amici and 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 (Docket Here)

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

Other Resources

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