HAGÅTÑA, GUAM & PITTSBURGH, PA — Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Calvo Fisher & Jacob LLP, and Farrell & Reisinger LLC today 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.
The SSI statute limits eligible recipients to American citizens who reside “in the United States.” But Congress defined “the United States” for SSI purposes as including the 50 states and only some additional American territory—namely the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Katrina is denied access to SSI on Guam, even though the American island rests fewer than 40 miles from the Northern Mariana Island of Rota. And, a special carveout in the SSI statute allows for certain noncitizens and their families on Guam to receive SSI, while Americans on Guam are totally denied.
“It is contrary to common sense, human decency, and sound public policy for the Social Security Administration to deny public benefits to Katrina Schaller and all other American citizens with disabilities living on Guam,” said Rodney Jacob, counsel for Katrina. “These discriminatory and harsh rules are denying Katrina, Leslie and their sister and her family on Guam the help they need to support each other and bring the family together.”
Katrina and Leslie were born and raised in western Pennsylvania and were inseparable throughout their childhood and young adult lives. But Katrina’s condition is more severe than Leslie’s, requiring full-time assistance. After their parents died, Katrina was forced to move to Guam to live with her older sister and brother-in-law, the twin sisters’ only living relatives. When Katrina moved to Guam, her SSI benefits were immediately cut off due to the current SSI statute. As Leslie’s condition progresses, she will face a similar dilemma—move to Guam to be among family and lose her SSI benefits, or stay in Pennsylvania to maintain access to SSI but become a complete ward of the state. Although Katrina and Leslie talk by phone or Skype nearly every day, the SSI statute has prevented them from seeing each other in person for nearly 10 years.
The lawsuit filed on Guam on behalf of Katrina alleges that the government’s failure to allow American citizens on the island to access SSI denies her Equal Protection of the laws, which is guaranteed by both the U.S. Constitution and the Guam Organic Act—a federal statute passed by Congress and signed by President Harry Truman in 1950. The lawsuit filed in Pittsburgh on behalf of Leslie alleges that the government is violating her right to Equal Protection of the laws and her Constitutional Right to Travel within American territory, since Leslie risks losing her SSI benefits if she travels to Guam to visit or reside alongside her sisters.
“Leslie has every right to visit her sisters on Guam. It is outrageous and simply unconscionable that the United States provides essential aid for its disabled citizens in the 50 states and some of our territories but not others,” said Mike Williams of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, attorney for the Schallers. “This disparate treatment is irrational. The United States Constitution forbids it.”
Selected media coverage:
Woman suing Social Security over restrictions on federal assistance, KUAM, December 7, 2018 (Video version here)
Twin sisters sue feds over denial of SSI benefits all because 1 sister lives in Guam, Pacific News Center, December 7, 2018
Twins sue social security over denial of benefits, Guam Post, December 7, 2018
Lawsuit seeks equal assistance for Guam residents with disabilities, Pacific Daily News, December 7, 2018
Katrina Schaller is represented by Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Calvo Fisher & Jacob LLP. Leslie Schaller is
represented by Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Farrell & Reisinger LLC.
Kirkland & Ellis is a global law firm with 2,500 attorneys representing global clients in litigation/dispute resolution and arbitration, M&A/private equity and other complex corporate transactions, restructuring and intellectual property matters. The Firm has 14 offices around the world: Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C.
Calvo Fisher & Jacob is known for handling the most difficult and complex matters for clients doing business across the Pacific Rim. With offices in Guam, San Francisco, and Saipan, we have represented hundreds of individual and corporate clients in complex transactional matters and cross-border disputes that require experience and expertise in multiple jurisdictions and practice areas.
Farrell & Reisinger, LLC, is a Pittsburgh-based law firm dedicated to serving our clients and the community with the highest levels of professionalism, commitment, integrity and experience. Our members include nationally recognized trial lawyers, prominent sports and entertainment counsel, and seasoned criminal defense attorneys.