Special to the Democrat

by: John Zippert, Co-Publisher

After waiting as many as 14 years, some Black farmers who were successful in the Pigford II, class action lawsuit for discrimination by USDA are receiving checks for $50,000 in settlement of their claims in the lawsuit. An additional payment of $12,500 is being made to the Internal Revenue Service on their behalf to pay Federal taxes on the award, which brings the total payment to $62,500.

The claim period in the Pigford II case closed on May 11, 2012 and it has taken over a year for the “neutrals,”  judges in the case, to make decisions.  Claims totaling 39,000 were filed with EPIQ, the claims administrator in Portland Oregon, in the Pigford II case. Of these claims 33,000 were deemed complete and sent to the neutrals for a decision on their merits. Of the 33,000 claims  18,000 were approved for the settlement payment and 15,000 were denied. Over $1 billion in settlement funds will be disbursed over time to the 18,000 approved claimants.

This lawsuit settlement process has been fraught with problems and controversy. Many farmers feel that they were disqualified and denied for the wrong reasons. Other farmers say they did not know about signing-up for the lawsuit until it was too late. Some farmers are receiving notice that they must share the award with others because they had “the same farming operation” when this is not the case.

Some families are receiving the award on behalf of a deceased relative and finding out that they must go through the “probate process” to access the award funds and that those funds must be shared among family members under provisions of state inheritance law.

Compounding the problems, there are several farm organizations and spokespeople, including Rev. Tom Burrell of BFAA (Black Farmers and Agriculturalists) in Covington, Tennessee who are saying that they are trying to re-open the case and asking people to join their organizations for $100 a year or more, to insure their place in the case.

Pigford I and II and the Women and Hispanic Farmers Cases are closed

“ At the present time, the sign-up for the Pigford I and II (Black Farmers Discrimination cases), Keepseagle (Native American Farmers case) and the Women and Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers cases are all closed. No one can get an application or submit a claim in these cases,” said Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Network of Black Farm Organizations, groups that have been working on these cases for two decades since the mid-1990’s.

“ It is unfortunate that farmer organizations, that know better, are putting out misinformation and raising farmers’ hopes about these lawsuits when they know it will take years working with the courts, Congress, the President and others to get these cases re-opened for farmers and their families who were left out. It took 14 years from 1999, when the first Pigford case was decided, until now to make settlement payments to the late and the late-late claim filers in that case. It will take a long struggle to have a third case for those left out of the first two Black farmer cases,” said Paige.

Farmers who are receiving settlements now, had to submit a “late claim petition” after the first case claim period closed on October 12, 1999.

The closing date for those petitions was September 15, 2000. Most of those petitioners were initially denied because they did not submit an extraordinary justification for being late.

The Federation, the Network of Black Farm Organizations and other allies went to Congress to hearings and meetings in the years between 2000 and 2008 and persuaded Congress to put provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill to give late filers and late-late filers, who submitted their requests to the Pigford Claims Administrator before June 18, 2008, a chance to make a claim on the merits of their cases.

After passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, which only contained $100 million for the settlement, Black farm organizations worked to get Congress and the Obama Administration to approve an additional one billion, 150 million dollars, for the settlement of these late and late-late claims. The full appropriation was passed in December 2010, which then allowed lawyers for the farmers and the government to settle the case in the Fall of 2011.

The claims period for the Pigford II Black farmers case went from November 14, 2011 to May 11, 2012 and only farmers or their families who were on the late or late-late claim petition list were able to file claims with the assistance of Class Counsel lawyers, community-based farm organizations or by themselves.

All claimants must meet basic qualifications to participate in lawsuits

All farmer claimants in the Pigford I or Pigford II lawsuits and the Women and Hispanic Farmer lawsuits had to meet three basic qualifications to participate in the lawsuits. These were:

1.The farmer claimant had to have farmed or tried to farm between 1981 and 1996. For women claimants, additional years from 1998 to 2000 were added.

2.The farmer claimant had to have applied for a farm loan or other services from USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) during the period 1981-1996.

3.The farmer claimant had to have complained of discriminatory treatment, in writing or verbally, to an official of the U. S. government during this period or up until July 1997.

In addition, the farmer or his surviving relatives, had to fill out a detailed claim form and explain the location and type of farming operation, land tenure arrangement, amount and uses of the farm loan, location of the USDA loan office visited, person who handled the loan application, nature of complaint made to a U. S. government official, economic damage caused by the loan denial or delay. The claim also has to be signed by the farmer claimant under penalty of perjury.

Some farm organizations, like Tom Burrell’s BFAA are not explaining to farmers the qualifications and parameters of the case. They are saying that these discrimination cases are “for all Black people who ever farmed, their momma and their grand-ma”. This is not true and all successful claimants in these cases must meet the above qualifications and be able to respond in detail to the questions on the claim form.

“People are distorting and misrepresenting the facts about these cases which make it more difficult for honest organizations that are working to represent the farmers to do their job. It was not a simple matter to win these cases and then do outreach to all the people who needed to be involved. There was more than signing your name to make a claim. And, there will be a long struggle to get another chance for people who were left out of these cases,” said Paige on behalf of the Network of Black Farm Organizations.

Part 2 of this article will be printed next week with more information on the results of Pigford II, the status of the Women and Hispanic case and prospects for a future third lawsuit.

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