Bill would reopen discrimination case
Black farmers may get new bid for compensation in agriculture legislation
By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — The farm bill moving through Congress would reopen a landmark discrimination settlement that black farmers reached with the Agriculture Department eight years ago, giving more than 70,000 claimants a new chance in court.
The bill, which passed the House Friday, could lead to a new class-action lawsuit from farmers who missed an earlier deadline and also would open a streamlined process for farmers to seek expedited awards capped at $50,000.
Democratic leaders set a limited budget authorization of $100 million to hold down the cost of the overall farm bill. But supporters acknowledge that would cover only a fraction of the real cost, which could top $2 billion or $3 billion.
At issue is a class-action lawsuit by black farmers who alleged that USDA routinely denied them loans and crop subsidies because of their race. Using a review process that required a lower standard of proof than a civil suit, the department agreed to pay at least $50,000 to farmers who could show they faced discrimination. They also set up a more stringent process for larger claims.
About two-thirds of the nearly 22,500 farmers who filed claims were awarded damages, and the government has paid almost $1 billion in compensation.
Additional claims filed
But about 74,000 additional claims were filed but never heard because farmers missed the deadline.
Advocates for black farmers have pressed for years to waive the deadline, saying many farmers didn't know about it or were denied standing on technicalities. As the farm bill moved to the House floor for a vote last week, many black lawmakers pressed for reopening the settlement as a condition of support.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said many farmers would jump at the $50,000 expedited award, as they did in the original settlement. But others would probably decide to seek larger claims, possibly with another class-action lawsuit, he said.
"At least they will have their cases heard based on merit," Boyd said. "We would like to see their cases move swiftly so they can move on with their lives."
A USDA spokeswoman declined to say whether the department opposes the measure.
But Marc Kesselman, the department's general counsel, said USDA took "extraordinary" measures to publicize the original settlement to ensure that eligible parties would know about it.
He noted that the number of claimants has skyrocketed from the plaintiffs' original estimate of just a few thousand people and said the House language does not limit the number of future claimants.
Kesselman also called the House's $100 million budget authorization a "gimmick." It would take just a couple of thousand claimants getting $50,000 awards to exhaust that total.
"It doesn't matter if you think (the case) should be reopened or not," he said. "Everyone should agree that this bill should be scored honestly. The math simply does not work with the $100 million cap."
The House provision, based on separate bills from Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Artur Davis, D-Birmingham., also would block foreclosures in cases where past discrimination is evident.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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