Over a decade ago, as the Pigford class action lawsuit alleging discrimination against black farmers by the USDA was picking up steam, class attorneys were confident the agency would face discrimination claims by other minorities.

In the years since, those predictions have proven out as Native Americans (Keepseagle), Hispanics (Garcia) and women (Love) have laid out a litany of USDA sins they claim need to be addressed in court.

In late February, the USDA announced it would establish “a process to resolve the claims of Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who assert that they were discriminated against when seeking USDA farm loans.”

The USDA said the process would be a “streamlined alternative to litigation and provides at least $1.33 billion in compensation, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief, to eligible Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers.”

Further, the USDA would provide “up to $50,000 for each Hispanic or woman farmer who can show that USDA denied them a loan or loan servicing for discriminatory reasons for certain time periods between 1981 and 2000. Hispanic or female farmers who provide additional proof and meet other requirements can receive a $50,000 reward. Successful claimants are also eligible for funds to pay the taxes on their awards and for forgiveness of certain existing USDA loans. There are no filing fees or other costs to claimants to participate in the program. Participation is voluntary, and individuals who opt not to participate are not precluded by the program from filing a complaint in court.”

To find out where the women’s claimant process currently stands, Farm Press recently spoke with attorney Kristine Dunne, Love v Vilsack counsel for plaintiffs. Dunne is with the Arent Fox law firm. Among her comments:

On where Love stands…

“Presently, the women farmers’ discrimination lawsuit – Love v. Vilsack – is still pending in federal court in the District of Columbia. The parties have been in discussions but the case is still pending.

“The government has announced it plans to initiate a voluntary claims processing program. They haven’t said when specifically it will be launched other than sometime this summer.”

On how much is being sought by plaintiffs…

“The women farmers’ complaint does not specify an amount. There was legislation pending in the last Congress that sought $4.6 billion to remedy the women farmers’ discrimination claims.  The government has announced that it intends to provide $1.3 billion for women and Hispanic farmers combined.”

History

On the history of the discrimination suits…

“The women farmers’ lawsuit was initiated, along with other minority group farmer discrimination lawsuits, following Congress taking action to retroactively reinstate the time period allowed for farmers to file court claims against the USDA for its discriminatory conduct in administering its farm loan programs.  In doing so, Congress reopened the time period for discrimination claims dating as far back to 1981.  Thus, some of the affected women farmers may now be elderly or even deceased.

“Why did Congress take this action?

“Because Congress had learned the (Reagan) administration had essentially dismantled USDA’s office of civil rights. The very office at USDA that was supposed to receive and process claims of discrimination … was failing to investigate and address those complaints.

“Effectively, these people’s complaints were never heard. And Congress did not discover this until many years later. When it found out how many were complaining about these unresolved issues of discrimination by USDA officials, Congress gave farmers who had been wrongfully discriminated against a new opportunity to bring their claims against the agency.”

Any idea how many complaints were … put in boxes under the desk?

“We don’t. Some were written complaints but many were also verbal. I’m not sure it’s possible to know how many there were because the government’s files are lacking.”

On how a Love settlement might be set up: Track A and Track B as in the Pigford settlement?

“Yes and no.

“The government has published information about how it anticipates having a track, or tracks, in the voluntary claims process. However, there is one maximum amount that can be awarded under either proposed track: $50,000.

“That’s quite different from the other farmer discrimination cases. For example, Pigford had two tracks for black farmers, one for $50,000 and one for greater damages to the extent the claimant could prove the damages.  Under the Pigford II settlement for late-filers, there are also two tracks:  for $50,000 and $250,000.  So, too, in the Native American settlement in the Keepseagle case. The government’s current proposed claims process for women farmers would provide nowhere near the same opportunity for women.

“The government has announced it intends to launch the claims settlement program for women and Hispanic farmers’ discrimination claims. USDA has been holding meetings across the country and has announced a toll-free phone number women can call to provide their contact information so that when the claims program is launched, the government can send them a claims package.”

Farmer numbers

Have you been meeting with women around the country?

“We’ve been contacted by women farmers who are interested in making sure their discrimination claims are addressed.”

A region of the country where more women farm?

“Women farmers are the fastest growing segment of farmers in the United States, and they are throughout the fifty states. What we’ve found is that in all 50 states is women have been underrepresented in terms of the number of USDA farm loan dollars and number of USDA farm loans awarded. That is striking.”

Is the common story like with the black farmers’ lawsuit where they’d go into an FSA office and not receive the proper application and/or considerations?

“Yes, that’s a typical story.  And there are others, far worse. 

“Many of the women farmers were refused application forms, while the men standing in line with them were able to get the forms. The excuses the women received did not measure up:  ‘sorry, we’re out of applications’ or ‘we’ve run out of money’ or ‘come back next year.’

“Many were told by USDA officials that farming isn’t women’s work and to instead leave it to their husband, brother or father.

“In other instances, the women got applications but their loans were denied. They believe it was for no other reason than that they are women. They believe they were fully, or equally, qualified as their male neighbors who received loans.

“There were also women who somehow initially got a loan – often either through their husband or their father. But they were then denied subsequent loans or servicing on the farm loan they had.”

Any idea for how many potential claimants are out there?

“The most recent agriculture census data reports there are over 300,000 women principal farm operators in the United States, and growing.”

On how the Love case could be funded…

“The government’s proposed claims process for women and Hispanic farmers (Garcia) is expected to be funded through the administration’s Judgment Fund.”

On interactions with the government…

“We certainly hope the government will address the serious concerns women farmers have raised regarding the proposed claims processing program. We think there are some great concerns and deficiencies in that program – not the least of which is the differential treatments of women and Hispanic farmers in contrast to other minority farmers.” 

Are you anticipating Love will be made a class action?

“The federal court denied the Love plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.”

For more on Love, see: