Special to the Greene County Democrat
by: John Zippert, Co-Publisher
Last week, in the first part of the update, we reviewed the background, history and qualifications to participate in the Pigford I and Pigford II, class action lawsuits on behalf of Black farmers who were discriminated against by the U. S. Department of Agriculture in the provision of farm loans and other program services.
The settlement of these lawsuits resulted in the largest payment of damages by the United States government for discrimination against a racial or ethnic group in the history of this country.
In Pigford I, 22,000 Black farmers filed claims and 15,000 were successful. Farmers in the basic tract “A” received a payment of $50,000; an additional $12,500 was paid to IRS to cover Federal taxes on the award. This case closed on October 12, 1999.
Some farmers in the case also had some or all of their outstanding loan debts to USDA forgiven if they could prove that the incidence of discrimination was related to the specific outstanding debts. Some farmers in tract “B” received higher payments based on documented discrimination. In all farmers in Pigford I received over $1 billion in payments.
There were more than 60,000 farmers who submitted late claim petitions in Pigford I which led to a protracted battle in Congress to allow this group a chance for a review of their claims on their merits.
Although it took an additional 14 years, late claimants in Pigford I will be able to receive $1.1 billion in payments in the Pigford II claims process. 33,000 Black farmers in Pigford II received decision letters dated August 30, 2013, in a claims process that closed May 11, 2012.
18,000 claims were decided in favor of the farmers (55%) and 15,000 Pigford II claims (45%) were denied. All of the approved claims are basic tract “A” claims. There were no successful “B” claims.
Claims on behalf of a deceased relative require ‘probate’
There are many problems with the Pigford II claims process. Those persons who filed a claim on behalf of a deceased relative now face an additional process of probate to be able to secure the awarded funds.
Claims filed on behalf of a deceased relative are considered “estate claims”. If the claimant died without a will, the state inheritance laws apply to the approved award of $50,000.
To secure the award funds, the Pigford II Claims Administrator is requiring a court order designating the legal representative of the estate. In Alabama, to get that order requires that the family go through the probate process on behalf of the deceased farmer claimant, in the Probate Court in the county of residence of the deceased.
All of the heirs of a deceased claimant will share in the proceeds of the claim subject to Alabama law or the laws of the state where the deceased resided. The surviving spouse may be entitled to a larger share of the estate. The deceased claimants’ children will share equally in this estate. If one of the deceased claimants children is also deceased, their children are entitled to divide their parent’s share.
A lawyer will be needed to file the probate papers if this has not been done previously. If the family can agree on the “legal representative” things will proceed more smoothly and faster, avoiding lengthy and expensive hearings before the Probate Judge, who will make decisions for the family if the family cannot agree. Lawyers are charging a fee ranging from 3 to 5% of the value of the estate.
In Alabama, the probate process includes securing a surety bond for the legal representative, publishing legal notice in a newspaper of the estate, in case there are creditors or other claims against the estate, establishing a bank account for the estate and reporting on the proposed distribution of assets to the judge.
“The Federation has been working to identify lawyers to handle probating these estates in the areas where we have members and claimants through out the South,” said Ralph Paige, Executive Director. “ We are helping people to find lawyers who will not abuse and overcharge them in this process to secure the lawsuit award.” he said.
Close to one third of the successful claimants in the case, over 5,000, are “estate claims” and will require this process to secure a court approved document and process to receive the funds. Claimants have one year from the time of receiving their decision letter to respond with the appropriate letter from the probate court in their area.
Multiple claims on the same farming operation
In hundreds of cases, the neutrals – judges that evaluated and decided the claims determined that two or more people who submitted claims must share the award because the neutral determined that they had the same farming operation.
Some of the claimants want to dispute the neutral’s decisions because they feel they did not have the same farming operation, they farmed different plots of land, were discriminated against by USDA at different times for different types of loans or wanted to borrow for different purposes. Some of the claimants share an address but did not share the same farming operation.
“We understand that this is a racial discrimination case not a land tenure case,” said Willard Tillman, President of the Oklahoma Black Historical Farming Association. “How can a neutral determine who was farming together when the claims were for discrimination at different times. These decisions were made in error but there is no appeals process in place to address obvious errors.”
Ralph Paige said, “ we plan to document these cases of multiple claims and bring them to the attention of Congress and the Obama Administration and see if some meaningful resolution can be found.
Denied claimants feel misrepresented by Class Counsel
A number of claimants in Alabama and other states have approached the Federation saying that attorneys representing Class Counsel treated them unfairly in the claims process. These claimants who were denied do not feel the lawyers gave them adequate, caring, informed or beneficial counsel in the preparation of their forms.
Class Counsel attorney held hundreds of meetings with claimants across the country to fill out claim forms. The denied claimants feel that they did not receive proper legal counsel in the claims process.
“ The Federation is recommending that denied claimants write their Congress-person requesting an investigation of the claims filing process to determine if it was adequate and fair and whether some claimants deserve another chance to file a claim in the case,” said Paige.
Next week in Part 3 of this series of articles on the Pigford discrimination lawsuit, we will examine the problems of farmers left out of the case and what may be able to be done a to resolve these problems.
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