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PIGFORD v. VENEMAN

June 2, 2003

TIMOTHY PIGFORD, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ANN VENEMAN, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT. CECIL BREWINGTON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, V. ANN VENEMAN, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION AND ORDER

The Court has before it plaintiffs' motion for relief for four groups of claimants who filed petitions for Monitor review, as well as defendant's opposition and plaintiffs' reply.*fn1 Plaintiffs seek relief for a total of 350 individual claimants whose petitions for Monitor review were deemed untimely by the Facilitator and not forwarded to the Monitor for consideration, based on the Facilitator's determination that either the petition or an amendment to the petition was untimely filed.*fn2 Relying on Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Court's inherent equitable authority, plaintiffs ask the Court to order that these petitions be processed for consideration by the Monitor. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies plaintiffs' motion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Petitions for Monitor Review

By Stipulation and Order of July 14, 2000, the parties agreed to deadlines for the submission of all petitions for Monitor review of Track A Adjudicator decisions, and the Court endorsed this agreement.*fn3 Under that Stipulation and Order, for claimants who received a decision before July 14, 2000 the deadline for filing a petition was 120 days from the date of the Order, that is November 13, 2000. For those claimants who received an Adjudicator decision after July 14, 2000, the deadline was 120 days after the date of the decision. See Stipulation and Order of July 14, 2000 at ¶ 5 ("Stip. and Order").

B. Plaintiffs' Motion for Relief

Plaintiffs address their motion to four groups of claimants, describing the specific circumstances that justify relief for each group. Although plaintiffs further divide these groups into subcategories and provide individual detail with respect to each of the 350 affected claimants, the motion is devoted primarily to two circumstances that plaintiffs suggest justify relief: (1) mistakes made by class counsel, of counsel, pro bono counsel or unaffiliated attorneys, largely owing to the high volume of petitions and/or the short period of time within which class counsel had to compile the initial Register; and (2) inadequate notice to pro se farmers and unaffiliated attorneys regarding the 120-day deadline for petitions for Monitor review.*fn4 With an eye to these two circumstances, the Court turns to the question of legal support for the requested relief.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Sources of Authority

Plaintiffs argue that the Court has authority to direct the Facilitator to process the 350 petitions for Monitor review despite the Facilitator's determination that either the petition or a supplement to the petition was untimely filed. In support of this position, plaintiffs rely on Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which permits a court to interpret and modify its orders, and on the Court's inherent equitable authority to modify its decrees.

With respect to the first ground, plaintiffs argue that because the petition deadlines were established by the Court's Stipulation and Order of July 14, 2000 and effectively extended by its Orders of November 8, 2000 and May 13, 2001, Rule 60(b) gives the Court discretion to "interpret" its prior orders so as to deem these 350 petitions timely. See Pl. Motion at 33. Alternatively, plaintiffs suggest that the Court may modify its prior orders under Rule 60(b) to allow at least some of the petitions at issue to be treated as exceptions to the deadlines. See id.

Defendant opposes plaintiffs' motion on the grounds that the requested relief can be achieved only through modification of the Court's prior orders and that such modification is not justified in these circumstances. Specifically, defendant argues that plaintiffs have not satisfied the legal standard for modification and that the Court therefore lacks authority to order that these petitions be processed for consideration. As for the Court's inherent equitable authority, defendant argues that the standard is essentially the same regardless of whether the Court analyzes the question under Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or under general equitable principles. See Def. Opp. at 6. Upon review of the parties' arguments, the relevant law and the entire record in this case, the Court concludes as a threshold matter that the requested relief cannot be granted without modification of the Court's ...


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