Special to the Democrat by:

John Zippert

 The court appointed Ombudsman in the Pigford II “In re Black farmers” discrimination case issued their first report on the implementation of the settlement agreement, which is dated November 6, 2012.

The Ombudsman, Stephen Carpenter and his deputy, Alva Waller, were appointed by Federal District Judge Paul Friedman to provide an independent review of the lawsuit implementation process and bring specific issues and problems experienced by the Black farmer claimants to the attention of the Judge.

In the report, the Ombudsman states, “As of October 2, 2012, approximately 39,905 claim packages had been submitted to the Claims Administrator in Portland Oregon. Also, as of October 12, 2012, out of a total of 39,905 claim packages submitted, about 33,089 had been determined by the Claims Administrator to be complete. Class Counsel lawyers signed Claim Forms for about 12,984 claimants, while 26,921 were submitted without a Class Counsel signature.”

No mention is made in the report of the number of “neutrals” reviewing claims or the number reviewed per day or exactly when the review process will be complete. What the report says on these matters is, “The next steps in the claims process are for the Claims Administrator to determine if the claim packages submitted are complete and timely and for Track A and Track B neutrals to evaluate claims. These evaluations are well underway. After the evaluations are complete, claimants will be contacted and eventually payments will be made to claimants.

The implementation of these aspects of the Settlement Agreement will be considered in future Ombudsman reports.”

The report is generally complimentary of the efforts of Class Counsel and the Claims Administrator to implement the settlement agreement calling it a “complicated and formidable undertaking.”

They say, “In sum, the In re Black Farmers Settlement Agreement created a demanding process that called for the evaluation and sign-up of tens of thousands of claimants. We conclude that the parties and neutrals acted in good faith to implement this phase of the Settlement Agreement.”

The report goes into great detail on the implementation of the settlement but does not answer issues that have been raised by claimants who have been left out of the settlement and hoped that the Ombudsman would help to address and correct these problems.

In their report, the Ombudsman states on page 7 of the report, “According to the In re Black Farmers settlement, only people who made a written request to be a part of the Pigford lawsuit can be part of the In re Black Farmers class. That written request must have been made between October 13, 1999 and June 18, 2008 to one of five entities: the Court, the Pigford Monitor, the Pigford Facilitator, the Pigford Arbitrator, or the Pigford Adjudicator. In addition, a person cannot be an In re Black Farmers class member if he or she actually participated in Pigford.”

This statement excludes people who wrote to their U.S. Congressperson or Senator; who called the Pigford Facilitator to be included in the case during the appropriate time period but did not follow-up with a written request; and those who submitted their request to community organizations and lawyers that were not directly a part of the official five entities. Many farmers who feel they were discriminated against by USDA tried to get in the case by one of these methods and were unsuccessful. These claimants are disappointed that the Ombudsman was not more forceful in advocating for their inclusion with the Judge or Class Counsel.

Without additional information from Class Counsel, the Judge or the Ombudsman, it is difficult to determine when the claims evaluation period will end and the payment process will begin. Many claimants are wondering when they might receive payment under the settlement. The Network of Black Farmer Organizations has urged the parties, particularly Class Counsel and the Judge,  to be more open and transparent about the settlement claim review process and report progress on a publicly available website.

President Obama and Congress have made $1.25 billion dollars available for all of the costs and expense in settling the case. At least a billion dollars and perhaps a little more will be available to be distributed to farmers in the settlement.

 Women and Hispanic Farmers

Settlement

While the Pigford II settlement process continues, USDA and the Department of Justice, have initiated a process for women and Hispanic farmers who have been discriminated against by USDA, in a similar time period of 1981 to 2000.

The 180 day claims process in the Women and Hispanic Lawsuit has been underway since August 24, 2012 and goes through March 25, 2013. Farmers interested in making a claim should call 1-888-508-4429 to secure a claim form. Information is also available on the website: www.farmerclaims.gov.

The Network of Black Farm Organizations, the Rural Coalition and other farmer groups feel that the documents required to make a claim in the Women and Hispanic Farmers Case are more stringent and restrictive than in Pigford or Keepseagle (Native American farmer case) and will likely significantly reduce the number of claimants in this settlement process. 

There are also restrictions on the spouses of farmers, who participated in Pigford or Keepseagle, from taking part in the women’s settlement unless they were subject to a separate and distinct incident of discrimination.

Pigford Ombudsman reports on  Black Farmer Case 33,089 complete claim packages submitted as of Oct. 12

Sophia Buggs at Lady Buggs Farm in Ohio

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