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Garcia v. Veneman

December 2, 2002

GUADALUPE L. GARCIA, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ANN V. VENEMAN, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs are ten Hispanic farmers who complain of discrimination in the administration of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan and disaster benefit programs. The named plaintiffs also sue on behalf of others similarly situated, including 92 individuals named but not described in their second amended complaint. Before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for class certification. The motion has been extensively briefed, but plaintiffs have yet to establish that there are questions of law or fact common to the class or that such questions predominate over any questions affecting only individual members. The motion must therefore be denied.

Background

This is one of a number of suits filed as class actions by minority and women farmers in the wake of reports documenting discriminatory practices in local USDA offices and the dismantling of the USDA's civil rights enforcement program in the early 1980s. In 1998, concerned that farmers had relied to their detriment upon USDA's (inoperative) internal mechanisms to investigate their discrimination complaints, Congress extended the statute of limitations for filing complaints under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq., until October 21, 2000, to allow farmers who had filed administrative complaints concerning USDA discrimination between 1981 and 1996 to bring suit in U.S. District Court. See Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 1999, Pub. L. No. 105-277, Div. A §101(a), §741, 112 Stat. 2681 (Oct. 21, 1998) (codified at 7 U.S.C. § 2279 Notes). A number of class actions were filed just before the end of the extended period of limitations. USDA has settled a class action filed on behalf of African American farmers, Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999), aff'd, 206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000). This action by Hispanic farmers, however, as well as suits by Native American farmers, Keepseagle v. Veneman, Civ. No. 99-3119, and female farmers, Love v. Veneman, Civ. No. 00-2502, continue in litigation.

The Garcia plaintiffs allege that, from January 1, 1981, to the present, the Farmers Home Administration and its successor, the Farm Service Agency, discriminated against Hispanic farmers and ranchers in making operating loans, farm ownership loans, and emergency loans, and in awarding disaster benefits. They also allege that the USDA acted unlawfully in failing to investigate and resolve the discrimination complaints they filed.

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers various farm loan and subsidy programs. FSA is the product of the 1994 merger of the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) (which directly made and guaranteed loans to farmers) and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) (which provided such services to farmers under commodity, price support, CRP, disaster payment programs, and related services to stabilize farm income and prices, and to assist in the conservation of land). The individual farmer's point of contact with FSA, and with FmHA and ASCS before it, was at the county office level. County committees, comprised of local farmers, reviewed and decided whether or not to approve loan requests.

Procedural Background

This suit was filed on October 13, 2000, eight days before the expiration of the extended statute of limitations. It was assigned to Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, transferred to Judge Royce C. Lamberth, and transferred again, on February 1, 2002, to me. On March 20, 2002, I ruled on defendant's motion to dismiss, holding (1) that the Garcia plaintiffs were entitled to bring Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) claims for discrimination in lending transactions without administrative exhaustion; (2) that at least some of the named plaintiffs' lending claims had been filed within the extended limitations period; and (3) that plaintiffs' allegations of failure to investigate civil rights complaints did not state claims under ECOA or the Administrative Procedure Act.

The motion now before the Court seeks certification of a class defined as:

All Hispanic farmers and ranchers who farmed or ranched or attempted to do so and who were discriminated against on the basis of national origin or ethnicity in obtaining loans, including the servicing and continuation of loans, or in participating in disaster benefit programs administered in the United States Department of Agriculture, during the period from January 1, 1981 through December 31, 1996, and timely complained about such treatment, or who experienced such discrimination from the period of October 13, 1998 through the present.

Analysis

Standards for class certification

Proponents of a class action must first satisfy the prerequisites of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a):

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and (4) the representative party will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

If those requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation are met, the class action must also fit one of three subsections of Rule 23(b), the second and third of which are pertinent to this case:

An action may be maintained as a class action if...(2) the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class, thereby making appropriate final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief with respect to the class as a whole; or (3) the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b).

The proponents of a class action have the burden of proof as to each of Rule 23's requirements. See McCarthy v. Kleindienst, 741 F.2d 1406, 1414 n.9 (D.C. Cir. 1984). If necessary, in deciding whether movants have met their burden, the Court may "probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the ...


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