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Published May 31, 2010, 12:52 PM

Discrimination suits near resolution

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Native American farmers and the government appear to be making progress in settling the class-action discrimination case filed by Marilyn Keepseagle, a Fort Yates, N.D., farmer in 1997, against the Agriculture Department, while the Obama administration announced an initial proposal to settle discrimination cases brought by Rosemary Love, a Harlem, Mont., farmer and Hispanic farmers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Native American farmers and the government appear to be making progress in settling the class-action discrimination case filed by Marilyn Keepseagle, a Fort Yates, N.D., farmer in 1997, against the Agriculture Department, while the Obama administration announced an initial proposal to settle discrimination cases brought by Rosemary Love, a Harlem, Mont., farmer and Hispanic farmers.

The suit, now known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, charges that since at least 1981, USDA has engaged in a pattern of discriminating against Native American farmers and ranchers in the provision of direct loans and loan servicing because of their race.

Lawyers for the Native American farmers and ranchers have been engaged in negotiations with USDA and the Justice Department for several months, and on May 27, lawyers for both the Native Americans and government asked for a continuation of the discussion period. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Emmet G. Sullivan extended it until July 29. The lawyers for the Native Americans include former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel.

There has been no public estimate of the cost of the Native American settlement.

Final touches

On May 26, the Obama administration announced that Hispanic and women farmers who have filed discrimination cases against the Agriculture Department would be able to get settlements of up to $50,000 per claimant from a $1.33 billion Justice Department fund if an administration proposal is completed.

“We are putting the final touches on a plan that would turn the page on the discrimination claims of Hispanic and women farmers,” said a Justice Department source with knowledge of the proposal.

The money would come from the Justice Department Judgment Fund that is used to settle most lawsuits against the federal government, the source said. Under the proposal, claimants in the Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack cases, which have been pending in federal courts for years, would go through a streamlined process to have their claims resolved. The amount of awards would be capped at $50,000, but actual award amounts may vary depending on the number of successful claimants, the source said.

The courts have declined to grant class certification in the Garcia and Love cases, and the lawyers involved in those cases technically represent only a small number of claimants. But the settlement program would include extensive outreach and notice efforts to Hispanic and women farmer communities so that all eligible farmers will be given an opportunity to participate, the source added.

In December, a group of women farmers including Love traveled to Washington for a news conference at which they said they said they had been treated unfairly compared with white male farmers in their applications for farm purchase, operating and emergency loans. Black, Native American and Hispanic farmers have made the same charges.

Relief for some

At the December news conference, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced a bill that would provide $4.6 billion to settle the women’s cases.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “We are committed to resolving cases involving allegations of past discrimination by individuals including Hispanic and women farmers as well as ensuring that every farmer and rancher is treated equally and fairly. We have made significant progress on addressing USDA’s civil rights record and look forward to providing substantial relief to Hispanic and women farmers in an expedited manner.”

The proposed settlement for the women and Hispanic farmers would provide less per individual than the bill that DeLauro and Eshoo have introduced, but Marc Fleischaker, a Washington lawyer representing the women, is optimistic about the settlement.

“We are encouraged by the proposals, although they are in draft form and need work. We look forward to working with DOJ and USDA to bring the much needed relief to women farmers as quickly as possible,” Fleischaker said.

Stephen Hill, a lawyer for Hispanic farmers in Garcia v. Vilsack, said he applauded the government’s decision to begin settlement talks, but noted that, while there are more Hispanic and women farmers than black farmers in the country, the proposed $1.33 billion fund to be shared by the Hispanic and women farmers is less than the combination of the more than $1 billion that black farmers have gotten in the original Pigford v. Glickman case plus the $1.25 billion black farmers would get under Pigford II.

Farmer value

“Our farmers have to wonder why their government feels that the value of their pain is so much less than that of other minorities,” Hill said.

Hill also said he was dissatisfied with the way the government is planning to process claims, but a USDA source said that part of the proposal was preliminary. A lawyer familiar with USDA discrimination cases noted that the courts have not granted class action status to the women’s or Hispanic farmer cases but said the government is likely to propose class action status as part of the settlement so that the definition of who is eligible to apply for relief is clear.

When Vilsack took office, he pledged to improve USDA’s civil rights performance. On Feb. 18, the Obama administration settled a black farmer discrimination case known as Pigford II by agreeing to a $1.25 billion fund. The 2008 farm bill said that black farmers who had not filed their paperwork in time to get a settlement under an earlier civil rights case, Pigford v. Glickman, still could file and that the cases should be settled. But the bill provided only $100 million for a settlement fund and said that a congressional appropriation rather than the Judgment Fund would have to be the source of additional money. At press time, the House of Representatives appeared likely to pass a bill that would contain the $1.15 billion appropriation to finalize the Pigford II settlement.

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