The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Civil rights group still seeks settlement changes

On the eve of court hearings on the status of Hispanic and female farmers’ discrimination cases against the Agriculture Department, a key civil rights coalition and the Obama administration are sparring over the settlement the government has offered.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights organizations, wrote President Obama on April 7 to urge him to improve the claims settlement program for female and Hispanic farmers on the grounds that the terms proposed are “far less generous than the settlements for Native American and African-American farmers.”

In Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack, Hispanic and female farmers have sued USDA over discrimination in farm loan programs. Unlike similar black and Native American cases, the Hispanic and women’s cases did not gain class-action status from the courts, and USDA and the Justice Department have set up a settlement system different from those cases.

In their letter, the civil rights groups said that under the proposal, "women and Hispanic farmers would be eligible for smaller awards than those that black and Native American farmers were eligible to receive. They would also face higher documentation requirements in an award system that does not allow claims based on actual damages and lacks court supervision and lead counsel to shepherd the cases through the claims process.”

In the letter, the groups proposed that the administration change a number of processes, ensure that debt relief is on par with that offered black and Native American farmers, establish court oversight of the claims process and provide access to legal counsel on par with the assistance of counsel benefit included for black and Native American farmers.

“Given the requirements of the program, the relative lack of sophistication with legal claims processes of potential claimants as a group, and the fact that many claims stem from discrimination which occurred up to 30 years ago, many claimants may need assistance in filing their claims,” the groups wrote. “This is especially true if the evidentiary requirements are not modified. It is clearly discriminatory for the federal government to cover the cost of legal counsel for some classes of claimants and not for others who are similarly situated,” they added.

In reaction, a Justice Department spokesperson said today that the agency “is moving forward with a voluntary settlement process for Hispanic and women farmers, that is based on the principles established in the black and Native American farmer cases, in order to provide a fair and flexible pathway for farmers to present their claims.”

“That is why we established a non-adversarial process for women and Hispanic famers – with similar proof requirements, cash awards, and debt and tax relief as other larger scale farmer settlements – in order to resolve claims of past discrimination against USDA,” the spokesperson said.

A USDA spokesperson said, “For the first time, Hispanic, black, Native American and women farmers now have a meaningful approach to bring resolution to their claims which provides an option for compensation for individuals who may have faced discrimination. At the same time, individuals should choose a legal path that best fits their personal situation.”

A USDA source added that the administration believes it is “misleading” to state that the women and Hispanic farmers would be eligible for smaller awards than black and Native American farmers because the total funds available for cash awards for the women and Hipanic farmers is more than twice the amount for Native American farmers, and $80 million more than the funds for black farmers in the Pigford II settlement.

Lawyers for the female and Hispanic farmers have said there may be more claimants in their cases than in the black and Native American cases.