Black Farmers Sue Usda For $20.5 Billion

Mismanaged 1999 settlement sparks class action lawsuit

In September, the Black Farmers and Agriculturist Association (BFAA) and 11 other plaintiffs filed a new suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking $20.5 billion and class action status for up to 25,000 black farmers whom the organization claims were denied fair loans and farm programs between 1997 and 2004.

The suit follows a July report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which showed that the 1999 settlement between the USDA and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), who accused the department of discrimination between 1981 and 1996, never yielded compensation for a majority of the growers who filed claims. Payments were denied to 81,000 of the 94,000 black farmers who sought restitution, according to the EWG report.

“We get hundreds of calls every day from black farmers around the country saying ‘Hey, I haven’t gotten my check,’” says John W. Boyd, president of NBFA.

Under the terms of the settlement, black farmers could file claims in one of two tracks. For Track A, a minimal amount of evidence would be needed to prove discrimination, and claimants who were found to be eligible would receive a flat fee of $50,000. For Track B, a larger amount of evidence would be evaluated in a hearing, yet there was no cap in terms of how much relief farmers could receive.

Of those who were refused payment, 64,000 were said to have filed their claims after the original deadline. But according to the EWG report, those claims were, in fact, filed in time to meet a late claims deadline established by the court.

The EWG report found that 40% of the 22,181 farmers who chose Track A were denied compensation, and only 10% of the 173 farmers who chose Track B received a favorable decision after a hearing. One of the reasons for the high denial rate, Boyd says, was a clause in the settlement that said black farmers who felt they had been discriminated against had to find a “similarly situated white farmer” in their communities who had received a comparable loan.

“How can you expect these black farmers to find a similarly situated white farmer who’s going to tell them their personal business?” Boyd says.

USDA Spokesman Ed Loyd says the USDA had nothing to do with the denials of payment. “The report would suggest that USDA has been involved in denying claims under the settlement, which is not true at all. What the [settlement] did was it established a process by the court where the court appointed a neutral, independent third party that would receive all the claims and make determinations on the validity of the claim, not the USDA.”

However, the department is expected to move forward with its decision to appoint blacks to the voting committees that oversee the allocation of federal farm subsidies. Voting members are elected, but under new regulations, the USDA can appoint minorities to committees lacking minority representation or targeted by complaints of bias. Black farmers have contended that white-dominated committees force foreclosures on black farms, which are then purchased

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