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Pro Bono - Puerto Rico

Securing a Historic Equal Protection Victory for U.S. Citizen in Puerto Rico

The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico issued a decision in March 2019 in favor of Curtis pro bono client and Puerto Rico resident Jose Luis Vaello Madero.

The case arose from a suit brought by the United States against our client to recover SSI benefits he received after he moved from New York State to Puerto Rico.

Curtis successfully invoked the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution to attack the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI program under the Social Security Act, arguing that such exclusion impermissibly discriminates against a historically disadvantaged and politically powerless “discrete and insular minority.”

This statutory exclusion of Puerto Rico residents had survived previous challenges due to the continuing validity of the racially motivated Supreme Court decisions from the early 1900s known as the “Insular Cases.” Curtis challenged the continuing validity of the Insular Cases, noting that the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence had evolved to the extent that such cases were no longer good law.

Judge Gustavo Gelpí agreed that Puerto Ricans – who are U.S. citizens by birthright – cannot be subjected to disparate treatment outside the ordinary bounds of the Fifth Amendment simply because they reside in a territory rather than one of the constituent States. The decision is a significant step towards granting Puerto Rico residents full constitutional protections.