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Tue04152014

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Claims deadline looms for African-American farmers

Barring an unexpected extension from a federal judge, Friday (May 11) will be the last day for African-American farmers to file claims under a landmark class-action suit.

WASHINGTON  – Barring an unexpected extension from a federal judge, Friday (May 11) will be the last day for African-American farmers to file claims under a landmark class-action suit known as Pigford II.

More than 60 groups supporting African-American farmers sent a letter to U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington, D.C., dated May 2, requesting a 90-day extension.

“We support their request for this modest extension to be sure the settlement reaches all eligible claimants and gives them an opportunity to participate in the lawsuit,” the letter said. “Working at the grassroots level and holding countless outreach meetings about the case, these organizations are finding eligible farmers everyday who are not aware of the claims process and how they go about filing a successful claim.”

It continued, “The projected 30,000 claims sent to the Claims Administrator are between a third and a half of all potential claimants. We feel Class Counsel and its partners in the case could and should do better in reaching a greater proportion of the eligible claimants. We feel an extension of ninety days in the claims period will help reach the remaining people.”

Because Judge Friedman turned down a similar request earlier, advocates for African-American farmers are not optimistic he will grant an extension beyond Friday’s deadline.

Interested farmers may contact the lawsuit administrator at 877/810-8110 or the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund at 404/765-0991 or visit their Website at www.federation.coop.

Litigation against the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman – began in August 1997 on behalf of two African-American farmers. But the problems of racial discrimination had long predated those claims.

“For many years, black farmers had complained that they were not receiving fair treatment when they applied to local county committees (which made the decisions) for farm loans or assistance,” said a Congressional Research Service report by Tadlock Cowan and Jody Feder. “These farmers alleged that they were denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer for loan approval than non-minority farmers. Many black farmers contended that they were facing foreclosure and financial ruin because the USDA denied them timely loans and debt restructuring. Moreover, many claimed the USDA was not responsive to discrimination complaints. A huge agency backlog of unresolved complaints began to build after the USDA’s Civil Rights Office was closed in 1983.”

The Department of Agriculture commissioned a study that found that the largest USDA loans (the top 1 percent) went to corporations (65 percent) and white male farmers (25 percent). Loans to African-American male farmers averaged $4,000, which was 25 percent less than those awarded to White males. In addition, 97 percent of disaster payments went to White farmers, while less than 1 percent went to African-American farmers. The study attributed the discrepancies to “gross deficiencies” in USDA’s data collection and handling.

After the two suits were filed against USDA, the department acknowledged past discrimination and entered into a consent agreement with the Black farmers. Under the terms of the agreement, one tract provides a settlement of $50,000 and loan forgiveness and a second option requires more rigorous proof of racial discrimination, with awards up to $250,000.

A large percentage of African-American farmers did not have their cases heart because of late filing. But they were later accommodated under what was known as Pigford II.

After a series of false starts, Congress approved a $1.5 billion settlement appropriation in November 2010.

Judge Friedman said he was “surprised and disappointed” that USDA did not want to include a sentence in the decree saying that in the future, the agency would exert its “best efforts to ensure compliance with all applicable statues and regulations prohibiting discrimination.”

 

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