Special to the Democrat by:

John Zippert, Co-Publisher

On Monday, March 25, 2013, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack  announced an extension until May 1, 2013 for Hispanic and women farmer and rancher claimants wishing to file for past discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture in its farm loan programs.

Class counsel lawyers for Black farmers in the Pigford II late claim settlement sent a letter to Black Farmer Organizations on March 11 stating that “notice will be sent to all claimants and checks sent to those who prevailed with meritorious claims. We are hope that this will take place within the next few months.”

Hispanic and Women Farmers claims process

“Hispanic and women farmers who believe they have faced discriminatory practices in the past from the USDA have additional time to file a claim in order to have a chance to receive a cash payment or loan forgiveness,” said Secretary Vilsack. “USDA urges potential claimants to contact the Claims Administrator for information and to file their claim packages on or before May 1, 2013.”

The process offers a voluntary alternative to litigation for each Hispanic or female farmer and rancher who can prove that USDA denied his or her application for loan or loan servicing assistance for discriminatory reasons for certain time periods between 1981 and 2000.

As announced in February 2011, the voluntary claims process will make available at least $1.33 billion for cash awards and tax relief payments, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief, to eligible Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers. There are no filing fees to participate in the program.

Call center representatives can be reached at 1-888-508-4429. Claimants may register for a claims package (by calling the number or visiting the website) or may download the forms from the website at: www.farmerclaims.gov

Claim packages and other documentation may be mailed to Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers Claims Administrator, PO Box 4540, Portland, OR 97208-4540. Claim packages and other documentation may also be emailed to claims@hwfr.org. Claimants may also fax claims packages and other documentation to (855) 626-8343. Completed forms and documentation must be received no later than 11:59 p.m. PDT on May 1, 2013.

Once a claim is submitted to the Claims Administrator, the Claims Administrator will determine if it is timely and complete. If it is, the claim will move to the Claims Adjudicator for a determination on the merits of the claim.

USDA may submit evidence to the Claims Adjudicator regarding the claim. If a claim is deemed incomplete, a claimant will be notified by the Claims Administrator and given the opportunity to provide additional information within a certain timeframe. Claimants may check the status of their claims on the claims website.

Independent companies will administer the claims process and adjudicate the claims. Although there are no filing fees to participate and a lawyer is not required to participate in the claims process, persons seeking legal advice may contact a lawyer or other legal services provider.

Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern of Cooperatives said, “ We are encouraged that this extension will allow more Hispanic and women farmers who were discriminated against by USDA to file claims. This process is more rigorous than the Black farmer claims process but our organization is available to assist farmers in filing their claims.” The Federation may be contacted at 205/652-9676 or 404/765-0991 or on its website: www.federation.coop.

Pigford II Class Counsel letter

On March 11, the Class Counsel in the pending Pigford II Black farmer discrimination case sent a letter to Black Farmers Organizations explaining the status of the case and the reasons for the delay in payments to farmers.

The Pigford II claims process ended on May 11, 2012 and farmers have been anticipating their checks at the end of 2012 or during the first quarter of 2013. It now seems that the payments will not be made until some time in the second quarter of 2013, perhaps as late as June 2013.

The Pigford II Class Counsel explain in their letter that  “90,000 claim packages were mailed out to persons seeking to participate in the settlement; approximately 40,000 were returned to the Claims Administrator on a timely basis; of these 34,000 claims were determined eligible for review by the Court appointed neutrals.”

The letter continues, “The Court-appointed Neutrals have now completed their initial review of virtually all of the approximately 34,000 claims forms that were eligible for a determination of the merits of the claim.  The next step in the process is for the Claims Administrator and the Court-appointed Neutrals to perform a quality review of the preliminary claim decisions and to identify claims that are duplicates and/or represent multiple claims relating to a single farming operation.  (This review is required by the Court’s Order approving the Settlement.)”

The letter then indicates, “In addition to the quality control process being undertaken by the Claims Administrator and the Neutrals, both the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Office of the Inspector General of the  are performing quality assurance reviews/audits of the claims process.

Because of the ongoing review process, we are not in a position at this time to project how many claimants are likely to have their claims approved.    We can say, however, that we anticipate that the majority of successful claims will be late claims, rather than late-late claims.

As soon as we are in a position to estimate the number of successful claimants, we will provide you with an update.   Notices will then be sent to all claimants and checks sent to those who prevailed with meritorious claims. We are hopeful that this will take place within the next few months.”

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