Skip to main content

Black farmers' case close to conclusion as settlement decision nears

By Paul Courson, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Class-action case involves bias against tens of thousands of black farmers
  • Proposed settlement would mean payouts of at least $50,000 each
  • Federal judge reviewing details and objections before likely approval
  • Activist invokes "40 acres and a mule" symbolism at the courthouse

Washington (CNN) -- Decades of litigation over racial bias at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are nearing an end as a federal judge prepares to decide whether to grant final approval to a $1.25 billion settlement for thousands of black farmers.

At a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Court judge Paul Friedman said, "I need to determine if it is fair, adequate, and reasonable."

Attorneys for the class action that led to the proposed settlement were in agreement with Justice Department attorneys as they stood before the judge, who earlier granted preliminary approval to a two-track system of payouts for discrimination.

Congress agreed to fund the settlement as a provision in the 2008 farm bill signed by President Barack Obama.

The proposed settlement is a descendant of a similar lawsuit dating back to the 1980s known as the "Pigford case," named after Tim Pigford, a black farmer who claimed racial bias in applications for USDA programs and financing.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has told reporters there's no question the damages are due for black farmers who suffered from previous discrimination by local and regional staff at the Agriculture Department.

Thousands of farmers missed a deadline to file claims in the initial Pigford settlement that this same judge presided over in 1999. Congress eventually agreed with calls to allow those who filed late to now have their claims considered. As a result, as many as 68,000 African-American farmers who filed between 1999 and 2008 could apply for one of two forms or relief.

"Track A," for a qualified claimant would lead to an uncontested payout of $50,000 after taxes, while "Track B" could yield up to a quarter-million dollars for damages that are substantiated by documents and other evidence.

But Judge Friedman said the legislation paying for the settlement may not let him address concerns such as those raised by the Black Farmers & Agriculturalist Association. The group's president, Thomas Burrell, Thursday asked the judge for the option of filing an independent claim on the money.

"We may be stuck with some of the limits Congress has put on everybody in this room," Friedman said, including the ability to "opt out" and try to win a greater payout.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told CNN during a break at the hearing that the deal could fail, and the money would vanish, if the judge goes beyond what the legislation prescribes.

"I don't want to scrap the settlement," Boyd said in an interview on the courthouse steps, "I want those eligible black farmers who've been discriminated against to get some type of financial justice so they can move on with their lives."

Boyd has been a leading advocate of legislation creating the settlement, and has made several trips on his farm tractor from Virginia to Capitol Hill to push for approval. Thursday two of Boyd's friends brought one of his mules to the federal courthouse. The truck and trailer were parked at the curb, and Boyd said he briefly let the animal out to underscore what's at stake.

"Forty acres and a mule," he explained, referring to the Civil War-era compensation to former slaves as Reconstruction took shape. "I wanted to use that as a symbol in America," he said, in the belief anyone in the South would know what a mule meant to a black farmer.

The reparations never came through for many of the former slaves, Boyd noted.

After considering concerns expressed at the hearing by groups and individuals who object to the proposal, judge Friedman said he will "issue an opinion at some point soon whether to approve this proposed settlement."

 
Quick Job Search