Farmers#8217; lawsuit reopened

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 9, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A Virginia-based organization has reopened a 1997 discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of more than 800 black farmers.

The National Black Farmers Association filed the lawsuit Monday, naming 823 black farmers, most from the Deep South, as plaintiffs.

Despite a 1999 settlement in their favor, thousands of black farmers missed a deadline to submit claims, according to the new lawsuit. The suit results from a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill, which Congress passed and protected from a presidential veto last month.

The Farm Bill provision allowed those who missed the 1999 deadline to apply for payments under the old settlement to file new suits against the government.

Finding in the farmers’ favor regarding the 1997 Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit, Judge Paul L. Friedman found that the USDA had discriminated against black farmers for decades “when [it] denied, delayed or otherwise frustrated the applications of those farmers for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs.”

When the USDA dismantled its Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication in 1983 and ceased responding to discrimination complaints, the judge wrote, those events “were the culmination of a string of broken promises that had been made to African American farmers for well over a century.”

As a result of the settlement, black farmers were given until Oct. 12, 1999, to submit claims packages to the government. Those who met the deadline were entitled to a flat $50,000 with little or no evidence of their discriminatory treatment. Farmers who could document such treatment by that deadline qualified for uncapped damages.

More than 22,000 farmers submitted claims, and more than 15,000 received monetary compensation, according to a Web site set up to track the payment program. But “tens of thousands” of potential claimants missed the deadline, the new lawsuit claims, and the new Farm Bill gives those farmers the chance to get payments.

The provision got strong support on the floor of the Senate from presidential candidate Barack Obama, who said during debate that the bill was intended “to provide tens of thousands of eligible late … claimants a right to go to court and have their cases heard.”

“Congress has finally heard our cries for justice,” John W. Boyd Jr. said in a statement following congressional approval of the Farm Bill. A Virginia resident, Boyd is the founder and president of the black farmers’ group.

“This is a truly historic moment in American history,” Boyd continued. “For the first time Congress has allocated $100 million to resolve cases of USDA discrimination. Although this will not cover the costs of all the outstanding claims, it represents a significant commitment from Congress.”

In fact, $100 million could fall far short of the amount needed to pay damages to all

or even most of the 74,000 late filers that Boyd contends are potential members of the affected class.

According to information available on the PIGFORD case monitoring Web site,, the 15,444 payments that were made to black farmers seeking flat payments cost taxpayers more than $980 million, including 25-percent IRS tax payments that were added to each claimant’s total payment.

There are no local farmers listed among the 823 plaintiffs. However, law firms that are representing the association and individual plaintiffs in the case are looking for other potential members of the class to include in the suit. For more information, visit