Politics & Government

USDA hopes to settle discrimination suits by Hispanic and female farmers

Hispanic farmers in Texas and California’s Central Valley planted the seeds for a billion-dollar payout when they charged the Agriculture Department with discrimination.

Their lawsuit has struggled in court, but it scored politically.

Now Agriculture Department officials are scrambling to distribute some $1.33 billion to Hispanic and female farmers with discrimination claims. Hoping not to miss anyone, officials have extended the deadline for applications to May 1.

“We’re trying to make sure we leave no stone unturned,” Lillian Salerno, the acting administrator of the department’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service, said in an interview Tuesday. “We feel like we’ve done a good job of outreach, but you’re never completely sure.”

Salerno said 65,000 claim forms already had been sent to Hispanic and female farmers, who could apply for payments of $250,000 or $50,000 each. By extending the March 25 filing deadline, officials think they can reach more potential applicants, as well as give additional time to fill out the 16-page claim forms. They also might avoid the complications that troubled a different discrimination-settlement program for African-American farmers.

In separate lawsuits, African-American, Hispanic, female and Native American farmers have alleged discrimination by Agriculture Department officials responsible for loan-making and other decisions. Each lawsuit initially named individual farmers, who argued that many others shared their plight.

Two dozen of the 81 aggrieved farmers identified in a 2006 version of the Hispanic lawsuit were from Fresno, Reedley or other parts of California’s rural Central Valley. Twenty-two were from Texas, many from around the El Paso area.

“Hispanics were consistently discouraged from even applying for loans or benefits,” the farmers asserted in one legal filing, adding that “those Hispanics who nevertheless persisted in filling out an application for loans or benefits experienced long delays in processing their applications (and) they experienced a high denial rate based upon highly subjective eligibility criteria.”

A separate lawsuit was filed on behalf of female farmers, including Winter Haven, Fla.-area farmer Mary L. Brown and Palm Coast, Fla., farmer Lind Marie Bara-Weaver. Though the Hispanic and female farmers’ lawsuits haven’t been settled, the Agriculture Department is offering the $1.33 billion as an alternative to continued litigation.

Raising similar issues and winning certification as a class action, the first African-American farmer lawsuit ended in 1999, when Agriculture Department officials agreed to a $2.25 billion settlement, the largest civil rights settlement in history.

While 22,700 farmers had filed claims, another 74,000 individuals came in late. Under political and legal pressure, the Agriculture Department provided an additional $1.25 billion in 2010 for the African-American farmers who’d missed the first claims deadline.

A class-action discrimination lawsuit filed in 1999 on behalf of Native American farmers was settled for $760 million in 2011.

Conservative lawmakers call the settlements overly generous and politically motivated.

“The proof is so low that all an applicant has to do is allege that there was discrimination and then find someone who is not a close family member who will attest that they complained about being discriminated against,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, asserted during a 2011 debate in the House of Representatives.

The House, though, rejected King’s effort to stop the additional payments to African-American farmers.

Unlike with the African-American and Native American claims, a federal judge declined to certify either the Hispanic or female farmers’ lawsuits as class actions. That forces the farmers to litigate their individual claims one at a time, and lessens their bargaining leverage.

In time, the Agriculture Department set up the voluntary claims-settlement program for the Hispanic and female farmers. Farmers who think they were discriminated against for most of the period from 1981 to 2000 may apply. Depending on the evidence provided, claim awards may be $250,000 or $50,000.

Hispanic farmers failed in a separate lawsuit challenging the Agriculture Department’s voluntary program as unequal to the settlement offered African-American farmers.

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