A Sordid Chapter in USDA History (2/19/2022)

In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) settled a long-standing discrimination lawsuit by Black farmers for $1.15 billion, which USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack at the time called an end to a “sordid chapter in USDA history.” What was that sordid history and has it really ended?

Figure 1. From the Ben and Jerry’s web site

In last week’s Footnote we learned that blatant discrimination within the USDA against Black farmers was the sordid history Secretary Vilsack was referencing. So, what was “the end”? In this Footnote we will learn about the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit and Pigford II that supposedly ended the discrimination from the USDA.

Pigford v Glickman

Background Information: In 1994 the USDA commissioned a consulting firm, D. J. Miller and Associates, to analyze the treatment of minorities and women in the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs. [Note: A past Friday Footnote revealed the FSA was created in 1994 and was a consolidation of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Farmers Home Administration.] The consulting firm documented that Black farmers had been treated differently than white farmers.

In December of 1996 Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, halted all farm foreclosures until a thorough investigation could be made regarding racial discrimination in the USDA loan programs. Glickman also appointed a USDA Civil Rights Task Force to study the problem. On February 28, 1997 the Civil Rights Task Force recommended 92 changes to address racial bias within the USDA.

Even though the Task Force report acknowledged past problems and made recommendations for the future, the report did nothing to remedy the past wrongs. So, this led Timothy Pigford , who was joined by 400 additional Black farmers, to file a class action lawsuit in August of 1997 in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The suit alleged that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers in the handling of federal financial help applications and then failed to address the resulting complaints.

Who is Timothy Pigford? He was a tenant farmer in southeastern North Carolina who grew corn and soybeans on 75 acres of leased land. He applied on numerous occasions for a loan to buy his own farm but was denied each time. In 1984, Pigford testified before Congress that he was denied loans because of racism. He told of white farmers in his area who were in similar situations as him who obtained USDA loans. After testifying before Congress a USDA official in North Carolina told him that his application for a 1985 ownership loan, and for another operating loan, had been denied. Pigford believed it was in retaliation for testifying before Congress. The animosity between Pigford and the USDA continued for years with him finally taking legal action in 1997

Figure 2. Timothy Pigford

The lawsuit: In August of 1997 Pigford filed his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The attorneys for the Black farmers requested blanket mediation to cover all the estimated Black farmers who might qualify for relief. In November of 1997 the government agreed to mediation, but opposed blanket mediation, arguing that each case had to be investigated separately. So, the government started investigating each case.

When it became apparent that the USDA would not be able to investigate the immense number of individual complaints from minority farmers, and that the government would not yield on its objections to class relief, the attorneys for the Black farmers requested that a trial be conducted. Judge Paul Friedman agreed and set a trial date for February 1, 1999.

After the decision to have a trial was made the court ruled that a class action suit was justified and set January 1983 through February 21, 1997 as the time period to be covered in the trial. In other words, Black farmers who had applied for a USDA loan during this time period were considered as being in the “class.”

As the court date approached, the government blinked. They knew the evidence was overwhelming against the USDA and a jury could assess astronomical financial relief to the Black farmers. Accordingly, a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement were announced on April 14, 1999. The Black farmers covered in the class had 180 days to file their claims.

There were two avenues, called Tracks, that Black Farmers could pursue in the settlement. Track A promised an automatic payment of $50,000 if the claim was approved. Farmers “just” had to provide documentation. Track B required a hearing, but the farmer could receive much higher compensation if they proved their claim. Track B claimants had to prove their claims and actual damages by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., it is more likely than not that their claims are valid). The documentation to support such a claim and the amount of relief were reviewed by a third party arbitrator, who made a binding decision.

For Track A claims the claimant had to satisfy the following criteria:

  1. the claimant owned or leased, or attempted to own or lease, farm land;
  2. the claimant applied for a specific credit transaction at a USDA county office during the applicable period;
  3. the loan was denied, provided late, approved for a lesser amount than requested, encumbered by restrictive conditions, or USDA failed to provide appropriate loan service, and such treatment was less favorable than that accorded specifically identified, similarly situated white farmers; and
  4. the USDA’s treatment of the loan application led to economic damage to the class member.
  5. the claimant had filed a complaint with an appropriate government official

In order to qualify for a settlement, the Black farmer had to provide evidence that he had been denied a loan while a white farmer similarly situated for a loan was approved (bullet 3 above). How is a Black farmer to do this? Should he go ask his white farmer neighbors if they received loans during this time period and for how much? Rely on local USDA offices to provide data from 15 years ago showing an application was thrown in the trash? It was nearly an impossible imposition. A Duke University law professor, Thomas Metzloff, who had worked on numerous class action lawsuits said that Black farmers “are being asked to prove something that happened years ago when the information isn’t readily available.” He said this requirement was onerous.

Forty percent of the 22,100 farmers whose claims were reviewed under Track A were denied. Of the 173 farmers who filed under Track B, only 18 won compensation. Arbitrators never reviewed an additional 72,000 claims, saying they were filed late.

In an article in the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer newspaper (July 21, 2004) it was stated “Federal lawyers fought claims aggressively, the farmers said, forcing growers to present documents that were hard to find in incidents that were almost a decade old. The Justice Department spent 56,000 hours of attorney and paralegal time challenging 129 claims and billed USDA $12 million…”

 Figure 3. Article from the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer newspaper
(July 21, 2004).

Pigford II

Due to concerns about the large number of applicants who did not obtain a  determination on  the merits of  their claims  under  the original  Pigford  settlement, Congress included a  provision in  the 2008 farm  bill  that permitted  any  claimant who had  submitted a  late-filing  request  under  Pigford  v Glickman and who had not  previously  obtained  a determination on  the merits of  his or  her claim  to petition in federal  court  to obtain such a determination. This was commonly called Pigford II.

On February  18, 2010,  Attorney  General Holder  and Secretary  of  Agriculture  Vilsack  announced a $1.25 billion settlement of  these  Pigford II  claims.  The 2008 Farm Bill included 100 million dollars to settle the additional claims, however this was not enough. After several failed attempts Congress finally passed the Claims Resolution Act to provide the additional 1.15 billion dollars in 2010 to settle the lawsuit.

In 2011 Judge Friedman approved compensation for the late-filers but there were strict guidelines that had to be met. Each claim was handled separately.

In the fall of 2013 the funds began to be disbursed under Pigford II. Plaintiffs each received $50,000 and $12,500 in an IRS account to pay related taxes. Because the settlement took decades to decide, many Black farmers died waiting for justice. Of the 18,000 claims approved, 4,000 to 5,000 went to the estate of the deceased farmers.

Thus the “sordid chapter in USDA history” was finally ended. We hope.

Concluding Remarks

There are varied and opposing reactions to Pigford v. Glickman and Pigford II. Some say justice has finally been served. Some say nothing, not even these case outcomes, can rectify or reverse the damage to Black farmers and those who wanted to farm. They point to the decline in the number of Black farmers over time. Others believe the settlement was outlandish, unwarranted and was tainted by dishonest claimants, corruption, and fraud. Regardless of a person’s opinion, we cannot ignore facts.

Judge Paul Friedman was “surprised and disappoint[ed]” when the USDA did not agree to include a sentence in the consent decree that in the future the USDA would exert “best efforts to ensure compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations prohibiting discrimination.”  Why wouldn’t the USDA agree to include this statement? You tell me!

If Black farmers had been treated equally from the beginning, there would have been no need for the litigation. So, the moral of this Footnote is to treat everyone fairly or as the FFA president says at the end of a FFA meeting, “As we mingle with others, let us be diligent in labor, just in our dealings, courteous to everyone and, above all, honest and fair in the game of life.”

If politicians, government employees, business and industry leaders, ordinary citizens, and teachers (including agriculture teachers) abided by the admonition above, the world we live in would be a better place.

Teaching Ideas and Acknowledgements

A quick search of Vimeo, YouTube and other such web sites reveals numerous videos regarding Pigford v. Glickman. Find one that you like and show your students and then engage in a lively discussion about the implications of these legal actions.

In preparing this Footnote I relied heavily on the Congressional Research Service.  They provide non-partisan analysis of issues of public debate.