Leaders of the Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates are shown at a press conference at the U. S. Capitol earlier in the year. They were working to pass funding for the Pigford II Black Farmers Lawsuit.
By John Zippert, Co-Publisher
On Friday November 19, 2010, after months of delays, the U. S. Senate passed $1.15 billion in funding for settlement of the Pigford II – Black farmers class action lawsuit. The settlement will permit payments to Black farmers who filed late claims in the original Pigford case.
The Pigford settlement funding was part of the Claims Settlement Act of 2010 which also included $3.4 billion to settle the Cobbel case, a long running lawsuit concerning Indian trust lands, four tribal water disputes in Arizona and some other issues.
The legislation passed the Senate by unanimous consent which represented a rare bipartisan agreement between Democrats and Republicans to allow this compromise to pass. The Pigford II funding had passed the House of Representatives several times during the Spring but was stripped out of the bills when they reached the Senate.
The Claims Settlement Act of 2010 includes offsetting Federal revenues to pay for these settlements.
It does not add to the national deficit which helped to garner Republican support. The offsets include extension of some customs service fees and the recision of a surplus in the Women’s, Infants and Childrens (WIC) program.
The Senate passed legislation must now go back to the House of Representatives to be passed in its current form before the end of this “lame duck” Congressional session. Then it goes to President Obama for his signature. After this the Federal District Court in Washington, D. C. will need to approve the settlement and the details of its administration and operation.
In a statement praising Senate passage of the Pigford II, the National Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates, recognized the work of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa for crafting the compromise. The statement also compliments President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for their support of the Black farmers settlement. The statement also thanks Ben Jealous of the NAACP for support and rallying other civil and human rights groups to back the settlement.
President Obama issued a statement saying, “I applaud the Senate for passing the Claims Settlement Act of 2010, which will at long last provide funding for the agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources. I particularly want to thank Attorney General Holder and Secretaries Salazar and Vilsack for their continued work to achieve this outcome. I urge the House to move forward with this legislation as they did earlier this year, and I look forward to signing it into law”.
The President concluded his statement saying, “This is why my Administration also continues to work to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA”.
75,000 late claim filers
in Pigford II
The $1.15 billion authorized in this legislation will be added to $100 million previously authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill for a total of $1.25 billion to be available to settle the Pigford II lawsuit late claims. The settlement was reached in February 2010 between lawyers for the farmers and the U. S. Justice and Agriculture Departments.
As many as 75,000 late claim filers in the original Pigford case, who filed their claims by the September 15, 2000 deadline, will be eligible to file a formal claim in the Pigford II case, describing the details of their discriminatory treatment by USDA during the 1981 to 1996 time period of the original class action lawsuit.
Many late claim filers may not meet all of the qualifications and requirements of the class and not be eligible to receive the payments from the settlement. Many in Congress were concerned by the possibility of fraudulent claims and built additional safeguards and audits into the funding legislation to protect against these possibilities.
Over 15,000 Black farmers received payments, loan forgiveness and other benefits which totaled over $1 billion in the original Pigford I lawsuit. These funds were paid out of the Justice Department’s Judgment Fund. The settlement of Pigford II for late claim filers was made contingent on Congressional approval and authorization of funding which has led to the past six months of Congressional debates on funding.
The basic Tract A beneficiaries of the Pigford I case received $50,000 and a payment of $12,500 to IRS on their behalf to pay Federal taxes on the award. The payment to successful Pigford II claimants will depend upon the number of claimants who qualify and may be reduced from the original amounts to fit within the $1.25 billion settlement. The settlement amount includes legal fees, administrative costs to distribute the funds and payments to farmers.
Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives said, “Our organization has been involved for 15 years, as an advocate for Black farmers, with the Pigford case. We are pleased with this vote by the Senate but we know there is still a long road ahead to get justice for all disadvantaged farmers. Farmers should not expect a check from the settlement of this case until sometime in the later part of next year (2011).
“It is going to take some time to go through all the remaining legislative and legal steps. We have cleared a major hurdle by Senate passage of the funding but we have some more hurdles ahead. We also support a fair settlement of claims for all disadvantaged and underserved farmers who were discriminated against by USDA. We are looking forward to a better day at USDA of respect and justice for all farmers.”
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