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Court Rules SSI Benefits Cannot Be Denied to Citizens of Guam

In December 2018, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Calvo Fisher & Jacob LLP, and Farrell & Reisinger LLC  filed two lawsuits against the Social Security Administration challenging the U.S. government’s policy of refusing to provide Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits to American citizens living on Guam. 

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of twin sisters Katrina Schaller of Barrigada, Guam and Leslie Schaller of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  Both sisters who are now 48 years old live with myotonic dystrophy, a debilitating, degenerative genetic disorder that severely inhibits muscle function and other critical aspects of daily life.  Although Leslie is able to live independently in Pennsylvania due to the essential aid she receives from SSI, Katrina is ineligible for the same SSI benefits received by her twin because she lives with her older sister and brother-in-law on the American island of Guam.  Without SSI, Katrina’s ability to live more independently and contribute to her own care and support is severely impacted.

On June 19, 2020, Guam Chief U.S. District Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood ruled for Katrina Schaller on summary judgment, finding that “the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment forbid the arbitrary denial of SSI benefits to residents of Guam.”  CFJ's Rodney Jacob, who has been working with the Schaller family for the past 10 years to secure benefits for Katrina, commented on the court's decision for an article in Pacific Daily News on June 20:

“There’s real justice that happened with that opinion. The court found that the Equal Protection Clause did not tolerate discrimination for the recipients of SSI. This is not an entitlement,The people who qualify for SSI need it to survive. I think this opinion helps everybody who is eligible for SSI, That was Katrina and Leslie’s goal. That’s why they did it. ... The court’s ruling says the United States can’t discriminate because you’re a resident of Guam.”

Selected Media Coverage:

'Real justice': Resident with disability scores victory in case tied to territorial rights, Pacific Daily News, June 19, 2020

Court rules Social Security income exclusion discriminated against Guam resident, KUAM, June 19, 2020

Judge sides with Guam resident in social security case, Washington Post, June 22, 2020

This case looked unwinnable - how a Kirkland team won it anyway,, June 23, 2020

Ruling may show sea change in territorial access to benefits, Law360, June 28, 2020