HONOLULU -- There's no rational basis for denying a disabled woman supplemental Social Security benefits because she lives on Guam, while allowing her twin sister in Pennsylvania who has the same genetic disease to receive the payments, a U.S. judge in Guam ruled.
Katrina Schaller and her twin sister Leslie were born in 1970 and grew up in Pennsylvania. The sisters suffer from myotonic dystrophy, a debilitating, degenerative genetic disorder affecting muscle function and mental processing.
After their mother died in 2007, Katrina went to live with a sister on Guam and stopped receiving the federal payments, while her twin in Pennsylvania continued receiving the money.
U.S. citizens living in any territory except the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands aren’t entitled to Supplemental Security Income, known as SSI, meant to help those who are blind or disabled. The judge’s ruling issued last week said this is “illogical and irrational.”
“There is no relevant difference between Guam and the CNMI that would rationally justify the denial of SSI benefits to otherwise eligible U.S. citizens residing in Guam, benefits enjoyed by their Chamorro neighbors just 60 miles north of and a 40-minute flight from Guam," U.S. District Court of Guam Chief Judge Frances M. Tydingco-Gatewood said in her ruling, referring to the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, which include Guam. "Accordingly, the court holds that the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment forbid the arbitrary denial of SSI benefits to residents of Guam.”
Katrina's lawyers are going to find a way for her to apply for the benefit, but expect the U.S. government will appeal the ruling, said Michael F. Williams, one of her attorneys. Government attorneys didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
The ruling won't automatically apply to others in similar situations because the judge only has jurisdiction over Guam, Williams said. “By its reasoning, it should apply, especially in circumstances where there are United States citizens who reside in the territories who are being denied SSI because they’re territorial residents,” he said.
In 2013, the Guam Legislature estimated that 24,000 residents could be eligible for SSI benefits if the program were extended to include Guam residents, according to the ruling.
“It’s a strong decision from the judge in what’s essentially a civil rights case. This is about access to benefits for the poorest and most needy people,” Williams said. “And there’s no reason that they should be discriminated against.”