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Plaintiffs in SSI class action suit move to demand benefits as US citizens scrapping of Insular Case


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

By The Star Staff


Individuals who in August 2020 filed a class action suit seeking Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are asking the U.S. District Court to allow them to amend their complaint to demand the benefits as U.S. citizens and to seek the overruling of the Insular Cases.


The class action suit seeking SSI benefits was filed in 2020 after the U.S. District Court and the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that excluding Puerto Rico residents from the benefits was unconstitutional. The case was stayed when it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on April 21 upheld in the case U.S. vs Jose Luis Vaello Madero the 1972 federal law that denies disabled benefits to residents of Puerto Rico under the SSI program. By majority ruling, the court said Congress can deny SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico because they don’t pay all federal taxes.


The individuals in the class action suit, Emanuel Rivera Fuentes vs. Andrew Saul, said the Supreme Court ruling failed to examine other arguments that make Puerto Rico residents deserving of SSI benefits.


“In view of the statements made by the majority, concurring and dissenting opinions, plaintiffs believe this case is distinguishable from Vaello Madero and request this Honorable Court’s leave to amend the complaint,” they said in a request filed May 13.


The Supreme Court’s decision in April, they said, omits the fact that people born in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Therefore, the high court did not examine the case based on the citizenship rights of the plaintiffs, who are SSI-eligible U.S. citizens, they said.


Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, stated that a careful “interpretation of the Citizenship Clause might have yielded a similar, and more supportable, result,” the plaintiffs said.


“Plaintiffs have affirmatively plead their citizenship already, but in view of Justice Thomas’s conclusion, Plaintiffs request leave to amend their allegations to the effect that they are U.S. citizens whose rights, privileges and immunities are not diminished by the Territorial Clause,” the plaintiffs argued.


The Rivera plaintiffs also want the court to dismiss the Insular Cases, a series of early 20th century rulings that justified discriminatory treatment under the law against the U.S. territories. In the April case, Justice Gorsuch, in a concurring opinion, stated the Court should overrule the Insular Cases but that it had not been requested.


In particular, the Rivera plaintiffs said they want “a historic decision of that magnitude to be in fact accompanied by the equality guaranteed to all American citizens that make the plight for overruling the Insular Cases more than symbolic. Lest it be a pyrrhic victory.”


Further, they argue that the issue of federal income tax in Vaello Madero was limited by the specific set of facts and the record developed in the Supreme Court and was not addressed in the lower courts.


“The tax analysis focused on Puerto Rico versus States as government subdivisions,” the document stated. “Although the dollar for dollar analysis on the whole actually weighed favorably for Puerto Rico as a political subdivision, the courts did not examine the federal tax-payment history of individuals in all the categories eligible for SSI. Since SSI benefits are based on individual evaluations, not budget allocations to government subdivisions, the courts’ analysis is incomplete.”


The Vaello Madero courts did not compare and contrast SSI-eligible non-citizens and U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico in the context of federal taxes, they said.


“Plaintiffs argue that the payment of federal income tax as a speculative prerequisite to justify the exclusion of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico from SSI is not rational, regardless of the ‘benefits and burdens’ analysis,” the Rivera plaintiffs said. “Plaintiffs clarify that, in making this argument, they do not stand against non-citizens receiving SSI. On the contrary, everyone who meets SSI’s criteria by definition suffers such poor health and poverty that the Federal Government has the duty to extend this minimal protection to all such persons alike, regardless of where they reside or where they come from.”

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