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Pigford v. Glickman

April 14, 1999

TIMOTHY PIGFORD, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DAN GLICKMAN, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.
CECIL BREWINGTON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DAN GLICKMAN, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

Forty acres and a mule. As the Civil War drew to a close, the United States government created the Freedmen's Bureau to provide assistance to former slaves. The government promised to sell or lease to farmers parcels of unoccupied land and land that had been confiscated by the Union during the war, and it promised the loan of a federal government mule to plow that land. Some African Americans took advantage of these programs and either bought or leased parcels of land. During Reconstruction, however, President Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill to enlarge the powers and activities of the Freedmen's Bureau, and he reversed many of the policies of the Bureau. Much of the promised land that had been leased to African American farmers was taken away and returned to Confederate loyalists. For most African Americans, the promise of forty acres and a mule was never kept. Despite the government's failure to live up to its promise, African American farmers persevered. By 1910, they had acquired approximately 16 million acres of farmland. By 1920, there were 925,000 African American farms in the United States.

On May 15, 1862, as Congress was debating the issue of providing land for freed former slaves, the United States Department of Agriculture was created. The statute creating the Department charged it with acquiring and preserving "all information concerning agriculture" and collecting "new and valuable seeds and plants; to test, by cultivation, the value of such of them as may require such tests; to propagate such as may be worthy of propagation, and to distribute them among agriculturists." An Act to establish a Department of Agriculture, ch. 71, 12 Stat. 387 (1862). In 1889, the Department of Agriculture achieved full cabinet department status. Today, it has an annual budget of $67.5 billion and administers farm loans and guarantees worth $2.8 billion.

As the Department of Agriculture has grown, the number of African American farmers has declined dramatically. Today, there are fewer than 18,000 African American farms in the United States, and African American farmers now own less then 3 million acres of land. The United States Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners to whom it has delegated so much power bear much of the responsibility for this dramatic decline. The Department itself has recognized that there has always been a disconnect between what President Lincoln envisioned as "the people's department," serving all of the people, and the widespread belief that the Department is "the last plantation," a department "perceived as playing a key role in what some see as a conspiracy to force minority and disadvantaged farmers off their land through discriminatory loan practices." See Pls' Motion for Class Certification, Exh. B, Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture: A Report by the Civil Rights Action Team (Feb. 1997) ("CRAT Report") at 2.

For decades, despite its promise that "no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of an applicant or recipient receiving Federal financial assistance from the Department of Agriculture," 7 C.F.R. § 15.1, the Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners discriminated against African American farmers when they denied, delayed or otherwise frustrated the applications of those farmers for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs. Further compounding the problem, in 1983 the Department of Agriculture disbanded its Office of Civil Rights and stopped responding to claims of discrimination. These events were the culmination of a string of broken promises that had been made to African American farmers for well over a century.

It is difficult to resist the impulse to try to undo all the broken promises and years of discrimination that have led to the precipitous decline in the number of African American farmers in the United States. The Court has before it a proposed settlement of a class action lawsuit that will not undo all that has been done. Despite that fact, however, the Court finds that the settlement is a fair resolution of the claims brought in this case and a good first step towards assuring that the kind of discrimination that has been visited on African American farmers since Reconstruction will not continue into the next century. The Court therefore will approve the settlement.

I. BACKGROUND OF THE CASE

The plaintiffs in this case allege (1) that the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") willfully discriminated against them and other similarly situated African American farmers on the basis of their race when it denied their applications for credit and/or benefit programs or delayed processing their applications, and (2) that when plaintiffs filed complaints of discrimination with the USDA, the USDA failed properly to investigate and resolve those complaints. See Seventh Amended Complaint at 4-5. Plaintiffs allege that defendant's actions violated a number of statutes and the Constitution, but both sides agree that this case essentially is brought under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1691 ("ECOA"). See Transcript of Hearing of March 2, 1999, at 19. *fn1

The Court certified this case as a class action on October 9, 1998, and preliminarily approved a Consent Decree on January 5, 1999. After a hearing held on March 2, 1999, the parties made some revisions to the proposed Consent Decree and filed a revised proposed Consent Decree with the Court on March 19, 1999. The Court now concludes that the revised proposed Consent Decree is fair, adequate and reasonable.

A. Factual Background

Farming is a hard way to make a living. Small farmers operate at the whim of conditions completely beyond their control; weather conditions from year to year and marketable prices of crops to a large extent determine whether an individual farmer will make a profit, barely break even or lose money. As a result, many farmers depend heavily on the credit and benefit programs of the United States Department of Agriculture to take them from one year to the next. *fn2 For instance, if an early freeze kills three-quarters of a farmer's crop one year, he may not have sufficient resources to buy seeds to plant in the following season. Or if a farmer needs to modernize his operations and buy a new grain harvester in order to make his operations profitable, he often cannot afford to buy the harvester without an extension of credit. Because of the seasonal nature of farming, it also is of utmost importance that credit and benefit applications be processed quickly or the farmer may lose all or most of his anticipated income for an entire year.

It does a farmer no good to receive a loan to buy seeds after the planting season has passed.

The USDA's credit and benefit programs are federally funded programs, but the decisions to approve or deny applications for credit or benefits are made locally at the county level. In virtually every farming community, local farmers and ranchers elect three to five member county committees. The county committee is responsible for approving or denying farm credit and benefit applications, as well as for appointing a county executive who is supposed to provide farmers with help in completing their credit and benefit applications. The county executive also makes recommendations to the county committee regarding which applications should be approved. The salaries of the county committee members and the county executives are paid from federal funds, but they are not considered federal government employees. Similarly, while federal money is used to fund the credit and benefit programs, the elected county officials, not federal officials, make the decision as to who gets the federal money and who does not.

The county committees do not represent the racial diversity of the communities they serve. In 1996, in the Southeast Region, the region in the United States with the most African American farmers, just barely over 1% of the county commissioners were African American (28 out of a total of 2469). See CRAT Report at 19. In the Southwest region, only 0.3% of the county commissioners were African American. In two of the remaining three regions, there was not a single African American county commissioner. Nationwide, only 37 county commissioners were African American out of a total of 8147 commissioners -- approximately 0.45%. Id.

Throughout the country, African American farmers complain that county commissioners have discriminated against them for decades, denying their applications, delaying the processing of their applications or approving them for insufficient amounts or with restrictive conditions. In several southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer. CRAT Report at 21. Mr. Alvin E. Steppes is an African American farmer from Lee County, Arkansas. In 1986, Mr. Steppes applied to the Farmers Home Administration ("FmHA") for an operating loan. Mr. Steppes fully complied with the application requirements, but his application was denied. As a result, Mr. Steppes had insufficient resources to plant crops, he could not buy fertilizer and crop treatment for the crops he did plant, and he ended up losing his farm. See Seventh Amended Complaint at ¶ 14.

Mr. Calvin Brown from Brunswick County, Virginia applied in January 1984 for an operating loan for that planting season. When he inquired later that month about the status of his loan application, a FmHA county supervisor told him that the application was being processed. The next month, the same FmHA county supervisor told him that there was no record of his application ever having been filed and that Mr. Brown had to reapply. By the time Mr. Brown finally received his loan in May or June 1984, the planting season was over, and the loan was virtually useless to him. In addition, the funds were placed in a "supervised" bank account, which required him to obtain the signature of a county supervisor before withdrawing any funds, a requirement frequently required of African American farmers but not routinely imposed on white farmers. See Seventh Amended Complaint at ¶ 11.

In 1994, the entire county of Greene County, Alabama where Mr. George Hall farmed was declared eligible for disaster payments on 1994 crop losses. Every single application for disaster payments was approved by the Greene County Committee except Mr. Hall's application for four of his crops. See Seventh Amended Complaint at ¶ 5. Mr. James Beverly of Nottaway County, Virginia was a successful small farmer before going to FmHA. To build on his success, in 1981 he began working with his FmHA office to develop a farm plan to expand and modernize his swine herd operations. The plan called for loans to purchase breeding stock and equipment as well as farrowing houses that were necessary for the breeding operations. FmHA approved his loans to buy breeding stock and equipment, and he was told that the loan for farrowing houses would be approved. After he already had bought the livestock and the equipment, his application for a loan to build the farrowing houses was denied. The livestock and equipment were useless to him without the farrowing houses. Mr. Beverly ended up having to sell his property to settle his debt to the FmHA. See id. at ¶ 12.

The denial of credit and benefits has had a devastating impact on African American farmers. According to the Census of Agriculture, the number of African American farmers has declined from 925,000 in 1920 to approximately 18,000 in 1992. CRAT Report at 14. The farms of many African American farmers were foreclosed upon, and they were forced out of farming. Those who managed to stay in farming often were subject to humiliation and degradation at the hands of the county commissioners and were forced to stand by powerless, as white farmers received preferential treatment. As one of plaintiffs' lawyers, Mr. J.L. Chestnut, aptly put it, African American farmers "learned the hard way that though the rules and the law may be colorblind, people are not." Transcript of Hearing of March 2, 1999, at 173.

Any farmer who believed that his application to those programs was denied on the basis of his race or for other discriminatory reasons theoretically had open to him a process for filing a civil rights complaint either with the Secretary of Agriculture or with the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication ("OCREA") at USDA. USDA regulations set forth a detailed process by which these complaints were supposed to be investigated and conciliated, and ultimately a farmer who was unhappy with the outcome was entitled to sue in federal court under ECOA. See Pigford v. Glickman, 182 F.R.D. 341, 342-44 (D.D.C. 1998). All the evidence developed by the USDA and presented to the Court indicates, however, that this system was functionally nonexistent for well over a decade. In 1983, OCREA essentially was dismantled and complaints that were filed were never processed, investigated or forwarded to the appropriate agencies for conciliation. As a result, farmers who filed complaints of discrimination never received a response, or if they did receive a response it was a cursory denial of relief. In some cases, OCREA staff simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them. In other cases, even if there was a finding of discrimination, the farmer never received any relief.

In December of 1996, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman appointed a Civil Rights Action Team ("CRAT") to "take a hard look at the issues and make strong recommendations for change." See CRAT Report at 3. In February of 1997, CRAT concluded that "[m]inority farmers have lost significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination by FSA [Farm Services Agency] programs and the programs of its predecessor agencies, ASCS [Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service] and FmHA [Farmers Home Administration]. . . . The process for resolving complaints has failed. Minority and limitedresource customers believe USDA has not acted in good faith on the complaints. Appeals are too often delayed and for too long. Favorable decisions are too often reversed." Id. at 30-31.

Also in February of 1997, the Office of the Inspector General of the USDA issued a report to Secretary Glickman stating that the USDA had a backlog of complaints of discrimination that had never been processed, investigated or resolved. See Pls' Motion for Class Certification, Exh. A (Evaluation Report for the Secretary on Civil Rights Issues). The Report found that immediate action was needed to clear the backlog of complaints, that the "program discrimination complaint process at [the Farm Services Agency] lacks integrity, direction, and accountability," id. at 6, and that "[s]taffing problems, obsolete procedures, and little direction from management have resulted in a climate of disorder within the civil rights staff at FSA." Id. at 1.

The acknowledgment by the USDA that the discrimination complaints had never been processed, however, came too late for many African American farmers. ECOA has a two year statute of limitations. See 15 U.S.C. § 1691e(f). If the underlying discrimination alleged by the farmer had taken place more than two years prior to the filing of an action in federal court, the government would raise a statute of limitations defense to bar the farmer's claims. For instance, some class members in this case had filed their complaints of discrimination with the USDA in 1983 for acts of discrimination that allegedly occurred in 1982 or 1983. If the farmer waited for the USDA to respond to his discrimination complaint and did not file an action in court until he discovered in 1997 that the USDA had stopped responding to discrimination complaints, the government would argue that any claim under ECOA was barred by the statute of limitations.

In 1998, Congress provided relief to plaintiffs with respect to the statute of limitations problem by passing legislation that tolls the statute of limitations for all those who filed discrimination complaints with the Department of Agriculture before July 1, 1997, and who allege discrimination at any time during the period beginning on January 1, 1981 and ending on or before December 31, 1996. See Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1999, Pub. L. No. 105-277, § 741, 112 Stat. 2681 (codified at 7 U.S.C. § 2297, Notes).

B. Procedural Background

From the beginning, this case has been a contentious and hard fought battle on both sides. The original complaint in this action was filed on August 28, 1997, by three African American farmers representing a putative class of 641 African American farmers. At an initial status conference on October 30, 1997, plaintiffs requested that the case be referred to Magistrate Judge Alan Kay for the purpose of discussing settlement. The government opposed that request. The Court refused to require the government to engage in settlement negotiations if it was not prepared to do so in good faith and with an open mind, but it made clear that the case would move quickly.

From plaintiffs' perspective, the most important pieces of evidence necessary to ensure speedy resolution of the case were the files of the individual farmers that were held by the government. The Court ordered both sides to comply with their obligations under Rule 26(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by November 14, 1997, and it ordered the government to provide plaintiffs with any files in its possession on any farmer who was part of the putative class. See Order of November 4, 1997. The government complied with the Court's discovery ruling, and since then has continued to provide class counsel with the files of putative class members that it has. See Def's November 17, 1997, Report to the Court.

In the meantime, a number of motions to intervene were filed on behalf of putative class members represented by other attorneys. The two attorneys who originally had filed the Pigford action, Mr. Alexander Pires and Mr. Philip Fraas, stated in open court that any attorney was welcome to serve as of counsel in the case, on the condition that he or she would agree that (1) any compensation would be provided only under the attorneys' fees provisions of ECOA, 15 U.S.C. § 1691e(d), or other statutory fee-shifting provisions, and (2) he or she would neither collect any fees from individual farmers nor enter into a contingent fee arrangement by which the attorney would take a percentage of the farmer's settlement or award. Class counsel also represented that any putative class member on whose behalf a motion to intervene was filed would be added as a named plaintiff in an amended complaint.

The motions to intervene subsequently were withdrawn, and a number of lawyers entered appearances as of counsel for plaintiffs. The resulting team of lawyers in the case represents an extraordinary range of experience, specialties and geography: Mr. Pires and Mr. Fraas, both of Washington D.C., have represented farmers in cases against the Department of Agriculture for many years; Mr. J.L. Chestnut from Selma, Alabama, Mr. Othello Cross from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Mr. Dennis Sweet, from Jackson, Mississippi, all are experienced civil rights lawyers; Mr. T. Roe Frazer from Jackson, Mississippi, and Mr. Gerard Lear of Arlington, Virginia both are complex litigation and class action specialists. In addition, Mr. Hubbard Saunders, IV, an attorney from Jackson, Mississippi with nearly twenty-five years of experience, and Mr. Willie Smith from Fresno, California have worked on the case.

By mid-November of 1997, the government had rethought its original position with respect to mediation and agreed to explore the option of settlement. The parties quickly agreed upon a mediator, Mr. Michael Lewis, but an agreement on the details of the mediation process required a number of status hearings and conference calls. Finally, in late December the parties agreed to stay the case for a period of six months during which time they would pursue mediation. The parties agreed to "commence" settlement discussions on a case-by-case basis but left open the possibility of discussing a global resolution of the case. See Order of December 24, 1997.

At a status conference just over two months later, however, there appeared to be a fundamental disagreement about the process of mediation: plaintiffs wanted to negotiate a settlement structure that would address the claims of all putative class members while the government continued to want to mediate claims on a case-by-case basis. Plaintiffs' counsel, in particular Mr. J.L. Chestnut, argued that the stay had to be lifted, legal issues briefed and decided, and a prompt and firm trial date set. If mediation continued on a case-by-case basis, Mr. Chestnut argued, "Well, Your Honor can look at my gray hair; I won't live that long. Many of my clients won't live that long. . . . Please, please give my people a trial date. It took us, Judge, 15 long miserable years to get here and now they want to go case by case. That will be another 15 years of injustice. The only way you can stop it, Your Honor, is a straightforward statement to the government: Settle it or try it." Transcript of Hearing of March 5, 1998, at 37-39.

The Court lifted the stay so that the parties could brief plaintiffs' motion for class certification and plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of the statute of limitations. See Order of March 6, 1998. The Court also set a trial date of February 1, 1999. Id. Upon the representations of the parties that they wanted to continue trying to mediate the case with Mr. Lewis, the Court also extended the time for mediation. See Order of April 6, 1998.

In the meantime, plaintiffs had filed a second putative class action, Brewington v. Glickman, Civil Action No. 98-1693. The putative class in Brewington included those who had filed their discrimination complaints with the USDA after February 21, 1997, the cutoff date for the putative Pigford class, but before July 7, 1998, the filing date of Brewington. With the exception of the date of filing of discrimination complaints, the allegations of the Brewington complaint mirrored those of the Pigford complaint.

On October 9, 1998, the Court granted the motion for class certification in Pigford. The Court also ordered the parties jointly to file a draft notice to class members by October 30, 1998. At a status hearing on October 13, 1998, plaintiffs informed the Court that Congress had passed a bill that would toll the statute of limitations for African American farmers who had filed complaints of discrimination with the USDA and that they would be withdrawing their motion for partial summary judgment on the statute of limitations issue as soon as the President signed the bill into law because that motion then would be unnecessary. On October 21, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the bill tolling the statute of limitations that had been enacted by Congress. See Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1999, Pub. L. No. 105-277, § 741, 112 Stat. 2681 (codified at 7 U.S.C. § 2297, Notes). The waiver of the statute of limitations provides that "a civil action to obtain relief with respect to the discrimination alleged in an eligible complaint, if commenced not later than 2 years after the enactment of this Act, shall not be barred by any statute of limitations." An "eligible complaint" is defined, in relevant part, as "a non-employment related complaint that was filed with the Department of Agriculture before July 1, 1997 and alleges discrimination at any time during the period beginning on January 1, 1981 and ending December 31, 1996" in violation of ECOA or "in the administration of a commodity program or a disaster assistance program." See id.

Faced with a February 1, 1999, trial date, the parties continued their efforts at mediation with the help of Mr. Lewis. At some point after the March 5, 1998 status hearing, the focus of negotiations shifted from case-by-case analysis to structuring a global resolution of the claims of all class members. By December 1998, the parties had informed the Court that they were very close to agreeing upon a global settlement of plaintiffs' claims in both Pigford and Brewington. Finally, on January 5, 1999, the parties filed with the Court (1) a motion to consolidate the two cases, (2) a motion to alter the definition of the class certified in Pigford to include members of the Brewington action and to certify the class pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, (3) a motion for preliminary approval of a proposed Consent Decree, and (4) a notice to class members. The Court consolidated the two cases, preliminarily approved the Consent Decree, approved the notice to class members, notified class members of their right to file written objections by February 15, 1999, and scheduled a fairness hearing for March 2, 1999.

Within ten days after the preliminary approval of the Consent Decree, the facilitator mailed a copy of the Notice of Class Certification and Proposed Class Settlement to all then-known members of the class. *fn3 The facilitator also arranged a print notification program with one-quarter page advertisements in 26 general circulation newspapers for January 21, 1999, and in 100 African-American newspapers between January 13, 1999 and January 27, 1999. See Def's Memorandum in Support of Consent Decree (Declaration of Jeanne C. Finegan). The facilitator also arranged to have a full page advertisement announcing the preliminary approval of the Consent Decree and the time and place of the fairness hearing placed in the editions of TV Guide that were distributed in an 18-state region, and a half page advertisement in the national edition of Jet Magazine. See id.

In addition, the facilitator aired 44 commercials announcing the preliminary approval of the Consent Decree and the time and place of the fairness hearing on the Black Entertainment Network and aired 18 similar commercials on the Cable News Network over the course of a two-week period. The facilitator estimates that on average, the print and television notice campaign "reached 87 percent of African-American farm operators, managers or others in farm-related industries, an average frequency of 2.4 times." Id. at 6. As of February 19, 1999, the facilitator had received 15,132 telephone calls as a result of its notification campaign. Id. at 7.

The USDA exerted efforts to obtain the assistance of community based organizations, including those organizations that focus on African American and/or agricultural issues, in communicating to class members and potential class members the fact that the Court had preliminarily approved the Consent Decree and the time and place of the fairness hearing. Def's Memorandum in Support of Consent Decree (Declaration of David H. Harris). USDA officials also were notified that, to the extent possible, they had an obligation to communicate to class members information about the Consent Decree and the fairness hearing. The Court posted a copy of the proposed Consent Decree and the Notice of Class Certification on the Internet Website of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Finally, class counsel held meetings in counties throughout the country, particularly in the South, to notify farmers of the settlement, the process for filing a claim package and the time, place and purpose of the fairness hearing.

The Court timely received approximately eighteen written objections from organizations or individuals. See Order of February 25, 1999. The Court also received a number of letters after the February 15, 1999 deadline which it also has considered. With the exception of one objection filed after the hearing, see Order of March 11, 1999, the Court has considered all letters and filings received before and since the hearing that have expressed objections to or comments on the proposed Consent Decree. Class counsel and counsel for the government also filed memoranda in support of the proposed Consent Decree and supplemental responses to the objections raised.

The Court conducted a fairness hearing on March 2, 1999, which lasted an entire day. The Court allocated time for all objectors who previously had filed written objections to the Consent Decree and also allocated time at the end of the day for others who wished to express their views. See Order of February 25, 1999. The Court provided time for class counsel and counsel for the government to explain the proposed Consent Decree and to discuss their view of its fairness. The Court heard from representatives of eight organizations that had filed written objections, six individuals who had filed written objections and ten individuals who had not filed written objections. The Court also heard from class counsel, counsel for the government and the mediator.

After the hearing, the Court sent a letter to the parties summarizing some of the objections that had been raised at the hearing and suggesting changes to the proposed Consent Decree that might alleviate some of the concerns raised. The Court indicated that it would not issue a final ruling on the fairness of the proposed Consent Decree until March 19, 1999, in the event that the parties wanted to file a revised proposed Consent Decree addressing the concerns raised at the hearing and by the Court. By letter of March 19, 1999, the parties transmitted to the Court a revised proposed Consent Decree which includes those changes or clarifications that the parties believed they could make to the proposed Consent Decree without fundamentally altering the framework and basis for their agreement. The Court posted the revised Consent Decree to the Court's Internet Website and issued an order granting any objector leave to file any comments with respect to the revisions to the proposed Consent Decree by March 29, 1999. The revised proposed Consent Decree now is before the Court to determine whether it is fair, reasonable and adequate.

II. CLASS CERTIFICATION

The Court originally certified a class pursuant to Rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for purposes of determining liability. The class was defined as

All African-American farmers who (1) farmed between January 1, 1983, and February 21, 1997; and (2) applied, during that time period, for participation in a federal farm program with USDA, and as a direct result of a determination by USDA in response to said application, believed that they were discriminated against on the basis of race, and filed a written ...


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