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Female farmers fight dismissal of claims system complaint

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Obama administration has asked the U.S. District Court to dismiss complaints from female farmers that the new system to resolve longstanding discrimination complaints is unsatisfactory, but lawyers for the women are opposing that motion, and have moved for a summary judgment.

The government is expected to respond to the Monday’s filing by the end of October, but no hearing has been scheduled, a lawyer at the firm of Arent Fox, which represents the female plaintiffs, told The Hagstrom Report today. The case is being heard in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

The administration last month announced an administrative claims system to resolve longstanding complaints from female and Hispanic farmers that the Agriculture Department discriminated against them in several loan programs.

The cases that female and Hispanic farmers have brought against USDA, known as Love and Garcia respectively, are complicated because the courts did not grant them the same class-action status granted to the earlier black farmers’ case, known as Pigford, and the American Indian farmers’ case, known as Keepseagle.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman settled the Pigford case during the Clinton administration, Congress provided a resolution for additional claims known as Pigford II, and the Obama administration settled the Keepseagle case.

Although the Love and Garcia cases did not achieve class-action status, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he wanted to find a way to settle the complaints, and announced on September 24 that the agency had established an administrative claims system to grant monetary rewards within certain limits. Complainants who believed that they had cases strong enough to get bigger awards were still free to sue separately.

Although the lack of class-action status meant that the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia did not have to stay involved in the Love and Garcia cases, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton has maintained an interest on the grounds that resolving the issue would reduce the number of individual cases that might be brought before the courts.

This summer he allowed the lawyers in the Love case to file an amended and supplemental complaint that said the proposed administrative claims system violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act by offering a claims program that is inferior to and more onerous than the programs provided to other minority famers.

“Women are subject to more burdensome evidentiary requirements, and will be required to produce copies of documents and witness statements from decades ago – hurdles that African-American and Native American claimants did not have to satisfy,” lawyers from Arent Fox said in a news release.

“The claim program is even more difficult for women farmers because, unlike the programs for African-American and Native American famers, the government’s program does not provide women farmers with counsel to assist them with understanding the form and the legal consequences of participating in the program.”

On the same day that USDA announced the administrative resolution system, the Justice Department asked the court to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that no class-action status existed and that the administrative resolution system is completely voluntary.

The Justice Department also said that it is impossible to compare the resolution systems because the Pigford and Keepseagle cases achieved class-action status and because the administrative systems put in place for those cases were somewhat different from the one proposed for the Love and Garcia cases.

The ultimate goal of the lawyers for the female farmers appears to be to improve the USDA claims process.

“We are pleased that a program exists for women farmers, and we encourage women farmers to consider whether they want to participate. But we also wish this was a more equitable program,” Arent Fox attorney Kristine Dunne said in a news release this week.

“Now that the program has officially begun, we hope that USDA will take steps to address confusion and clarify questions prompted by its documents. We would be happy to work with the administration in such an effort.”