Bill could settle USDA lawsuit

WASHINGTON -- For Rosemary Love, a Harlem, Mont., farmer who says she was denied a U.S. Depart- ment of Agriculture loan because she was a woman, a bill introduced by House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.,...

WASHINGTON -- For Rosemary Love, a Harlem, Mont., farmer who says she was denied a U.S. Depart-

ment of Agriculture loan because she was a woman, a bill introduced by House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Dec. 10 finally could bring settlement of a discrimination lawsuit she and other women farmers filed in 2000.

Flanked by Love and other women farmers who brought the suit now known as Love v. Vilsack, DeLauro and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., announced at a Capitol Hill news conference that they are introducing a bill to set up a $4.6 billion compensation fund for women farmers to whom USDA has denied farm purchase, operating and emergency loans since 1981.

Love, a third-generation Montana farmer, says that during the farm crisis in 1981, she applied for and initially was denied a farm operating loan, and later when she did get it a loan, it was half the requested amount, with liquidation of her farm as a requirement of the loan.

In 1983, when she was undergoing surgery for cancer, a county Farmers Home supervisor came to the hospital and demanded payment of the loan, she said. Love managed to hold on to her farm, and in 1987, filed a gender discrimination case against USDA. In 1998, a government investigator found that Love had been subject to unfair treatment, but USDA has never resolved the case.


"This has been a decades-long struggle for me and my family," Love said at the news conference. "This bill is important for future women farmers -- for daughters and granddaughters who want to continue farming."

Unfair treatment

Gail Lennon, a Lookout, Calif., farmer who also is a plaintiff in the case, said she entered farming in 1968 when she and her husband bought a ranch in California's Modoc County. But when she applied for a loan to buy an additional 40 acres to raise feed for hogs, she was told she could not get a loan because she was a woman and because she was pregnant. Later, she managed to get elected to the county Farm Service Agency Committee, but the state FSA Committee tried to block her election, she said.

"Many women were denied service" at the FSA and the old Farmers Home Administration offices," she said. "Many good applicants were flat out rejected."

She also noted that some women were required to put up more collateral.

Discrimination "hurts, it wounds, it has broken many spirits. Discrimination has gone on too long," Lennon said, trying to hold back tears.

Lind Weaver, a Flagler County, Fla., farmer who has also farmed in Virginia, said loan officers told her there were no loan application packets available, but gave one to her husband. Weaver also said a loan officer had called her "honey" and "cutie" and said that if she provided sexual favors, he would grant her a loan.

"Prostitution should not be a part of the loan application process," Weaver said.


Weaver added that fair treatment for women farmers is even more important today because so many banks require USDA loan guarantees for farm loans.

Eshoo, who initiated the bill, said her district -- now dominated by Silicon Valley -- now has farming only on the coast, but she recalled that farming once dominated the district and said she wanted to help "women in the most honorable profession."

She added, "You don't have to be a farmer to understand the weight of this." As a country, Eshoo said, Americans "ought to feel ashamed that anything like this ever happened."

Eshoo does not sit on the House Agriculture Committee or the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and said she asked DeLauro to introduce the bill because she has more power in agriculture.

DeLauro said she is filing the bill because, "This is an issue of fundamental fairness -- all farmers, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, should be judged on the merit of their applications for their loans. Years of discrimination and unnecessary hardship for these women, and all minorities, cannot be allowed to continue. It is time to do right by those that have been discriminated against in our past and present, to live up to our founding principles, and to legislate an end to this unfortunate and regrettable era."

Other pending cases

The women were one of the four groups of farmers that sued USDA about 10 years ago, charging that they were denied loans or proper servicing of loans. The other cases were brought by black, Hispanic and Native American farmers. The Clinton administration settled the black farmers' case, Pigford v. Glickman, resulting in eventual payments of more than $1 billion to farmers. A provision in the 2008 farm bill allows black farmers who did not meet the deadline to file their claims, and President Obama said in his fiscal year 2009 budget request to Congress that he wanted to set aside $1.25 billion to settle those cases.

The Hispanic, Native American and women's cases still are pending. DeLauro noted that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has made civil rights a priority, and a Vilsack spokesman said in an e-mail that "USDA is committed to ending all forms of discrimination and addressing past allegations in a timely and fair manner."


USDA and the Justice Department have not settled any cases since Obama came to power, but in early December, USDA told the lawyers in the Native American case it wanted to begin discussions to settle the case. Members of Congress including Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have urged Obama to settle all the discrimination cases, and Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennett have written Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that they want to work with him on a solution.

The cases, all filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, vary in their legal status. Judges of the District Court granted the black and Native American class certification, meaning the farmers could file as a group. But another judge of the same court, who was considering the women's and Hispanic farmers' request for class certification, disagreed with the other judges' rulings in the black and Native American that USDA's failure to investigate discrimination created the class, and he declined to certify the women's and Hispanic cases as class action suits. That means each woman and each Hispanic farmer would have to file a case.

Lawyers in the Hispanic case, Garcia v. Vilsack, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether that group of farmers should be certified as a class because judges of the same court disagreed on the issue. The DeLauro-Eshoo bill would take a different approach in the women's case, usually appropriated funds rather than money awarded from the Justice Department's judgment fund.

Determining settlements

The exact amount of money needed to settle the suits is difficult to determine.

DeLauro said the need for a $4.6 billion restitution fund was based on USDA Census of Agriculture data showing that there are approximately 300,000 women farm operators across the United States, more than 17 percent of the family farmer population, and estimates 43,000 women farmers have been discriminatorily denied more than $4.6 billion in farm loans and loan servicing from USDA over the years. DeLauro said USDA shows that women farmers were subject to discrimination in every state.

Marc Fleischaker, a lawyer representing the women farmers, said the $4.6 billion estimate for the women farmers was so much higher than for the $1 billion for 15,000 black farmers because there are so many more women farmers. Fleischaker noted that DeLauro's bill would not allow an individual to receive settlement from two different cases.

Sellers said the best estimate for the cost of settling the Native American cases is $600 million to $700 million. Steven Hill, a lawyer representing the Hispanic farmers, said there is no estimate of the losses or cost of restitution to Hispanic farmers. Sellers and Hill said they will continue with their court suits, but would consider congressional solutions.


Lawyers representing the women, Native American and Hispanic farmers all have established Web sites for their cases. Women's case: . Hispanic case: . Native American case: .

The sites contain information on how to join the suit.

Information on the settlement of the black farmers' lawsuit may be found at .

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