The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Discrimination case hearing set, but negotiations continue

The Federal District Court in Washington is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the status of the Hispanic and female farmers’ discrimination cases against the Agriculture Department, but lawyers in the cases are not satisfied with the Obama administration’s offer, and negotiations between the administration and the lawyers and plaintiffs are likely to continue.

The women’s case, now known as Love v. Vilsack, and the Hispanic case, now known as Garcia v. Vilsack, were filed years ago. The George W. Bush administration declined to settle them, but the Obama administration has said it wants to bring the cases to a close, as it did with the two Pigford cases involving black farmers and the Keepseagle Native American farmer case.

In all the cases, the plaintiffs said they did not receive the same treatment as white, male farmers in dealing with Agriculture Department offices.

The black and native American farmers’ cases were certified as class action lawsuits, but the Hispanic and women’s cases did not achieve that standard.

As a result, the Obama administration has proposed to settle most of the female farmer cases through administrative means while still leaving the plaintiffs the option to file individual suits. The court does not have to approve the settlement, but it has been keeping an eye on the case because it is in the court's interest to encourage a settlement that many plaintiffs find acceptable so that individuals will be less likely to file cases.

In late January, the Obama administration increased the amount of money that the female and Hispanic farmers can claim up to $250,000, but the lawyers and plaintiffs in both cases say the terms are not equal to those in the Pigford and Keepseagle cases, and that USDA should provide more money for legal fees.

Rep. Rosa De Lauro, D-Conn., who introduced a bill to pay for the cases, told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a hearing last week that she does not believe the female farmers will be able to get their claims settled fairly if they do not have proper legal representation.

A USDA spokesman signaled in an email that the administration believes the offer is fair.

“The lawsuits filed by women (Love) and Hispanics (Garcia) are not certified class actions, and thus there is no class counsel," the spokesman said.

“Accordingly, Hispanic and female farmers and ranchers have two of the three options available to class claimants in the Keepseagle and Pigford II class action settlements: They may represent themselves or may hire their own attorneys,” the spokesman said.

“Even though claimants are not required to hire attorneys to participate in the voluntary ADR Process for Hispanic and female farmers, USDA recognizes that access to ethical and capable counsel could contribute to the effectiveness of its effort to provide a path to justice for Hispanic and female farmers and ranchers who allege discrimination. Therefore, the framework for the ADR Process provides that each successful participant in the claims process may pay counsel fees of up to $1,500 in each of the two tiers (Tiers 1(a) and 2) in which recoveries are capped at $50,000.

“This amount is higher than the amount provided for non-class counsel in Pigford II and in Keepseagle. Moreover, attorneys who represent prevailing Hispanic and female claimants under the tier subpart (Tier 1(b)) that provides for recoveries of up to $250,000 will be entitled to the same level of fees as attorneys for prevailing class members under comparable recovery track (Track B) in Pigford II and Keepseagle.”