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USDA faces series of discrimination lawsuits.

Forget floods, drought, or mad cow disease. What's really worrying the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) these days are the new lawsuits it's facing.

The lawsuits--at press time, four--allege rampant discrimination at the USDA against African-American, Latino, Native American, female, and elderly farmers. The chief defendant is the USDA's Farm Services Agency (FSA), which makes or guarantees loans to small farmers (those with less than $250,000 in annual sales) who cannot get conventional loans.

Minorities have long alleged that the FSA discriminates against them. This mistrust was exacerbated when the USDA shut down its civil rights enforcement program in the 1980s. For almost 15 years, discrimination complaints were simply ignored. In the late 1990s, the civil rights office was reopened with Vernon Parker as its head, and Congress passed a law extending the statute of limitations for complaints filed under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. These actions opened the way for the current lawsuits.

The first was Pigford v. Glickman, a class action settled with African-American farmers in 1999. (185 KR.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999), aff 'd, 206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000).) With a certified class of over 15,000, Pigford is one of the largest class actions ever filed. Three new suits in litigation are Love v. Veneman, filed by women and elderly farmers (No. 00-2502 (D.D.C. filed Oct. 19, 2000)); Keepseagle v. Veneman, filed by Native American farmers (No. 99-03119 (D.D.C., filed Dec. 12,2001)); and Garcia v. Veneman, filed by Latino farmers (211 F.R.D. 15 (D.D.C. 2002)).

"They closed down the civil rights office without telling anyone," said Joseph Sellers of Washington, D.C., lead counsel in Keepseagle. "What's most striking is that [the] USDA did a sell-evaluation in die 1990s, and their own published studies document extensively that they were denying civil rights and credit opportunities to Native Americans."

The lawsuits allege that FSA loan officers refused to help women and minorities fill out loan applications, demanded exorbitant collateral and credit terms, told applicants there was no money for loans, took excessive time processing the loans, made payments to minority-farmers alter planting season had passed, and turned down loan applications even when the applicants qualified on the bases of income and credit.

"These are all behaviors that are proscribed by both the USDA's own rules and by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act," said Washington, D.C., lawyer Stephen Hill, lead counsel in Garcia.

The suits take issue with the FSA's requirement that loan applicants meet with a county committee of three to five local farmers who have input into the loan decision. Marc Fleischaker of Washington, D.C., lead counsel in Love, said committee members are elected by people who already have FSA loans, "so it was a self perpetuating cycle" that operated with out any oversight. "A lot of them seemed to feel that women shouldn't be farmers, [that] they can't be farmers, and their decisions reflected that attitude," he said.

"The idea [of the committees] was probably well-intentioned," said Hill. "After all, they are local, and who knows better the lay of the land?" But he added that "there are questions about just how open that election process was" and noted that most of the committees are all white and all male.

Skeptical observers point out that minority farmers constitute less than 4 percent of all U.S. farmers, yet they make up 10 percent of FSA borrowers. And according to the USDA Web site, "racial minorities tend to be located in riskier farming regions" and are "more susceptible to economic downturns brought on by weather-related disasters or low commodity prices. Credit enhancement alone may not be sufficient to enable these farms to survive."

But plaintiff attorneys say the agency has a systemic discrimination problem and point to several class actions by its own employees: In November, the USDA settled a class action brought by 2, 100 Asian and Pacific Islander workers who said they had faced discrimination in hiring and promotions. Two years ago, it settled with over 5,000 female employees in a class action alleging sex discrimination.

"This is a serious, entrenched problem," Fleischaker said. "It isn't just about money. The question becomes, how do you compensate someone for 30 years of mistreatment?"

Pigford, meanwhile, is the case that refuses to die. Its overly complicated settlement structure and the slow pace of payouts have been criticized by legal observers and the plaintiffs themselves--to the point that African-American farmers now want to reopen the case. Hill said that Pigford didn't lead to fundamental changes at the USDA, and that Garcia will avert similar problems by placing an emphasis on remedial injunctive relief.

He noted that systemic changes at the USDA will benefit all farmers: "If you fix it right, you fix it for everybody."
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Title Annotation:US Department of Agriculture
Author:Sileo, Carmel
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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