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Pigford v. Veneman

March 10, 2004

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

The Court has before it two motions for reconsideration of the Court's June 2, 2003 Opinion and Order denying plaintiffs' motion for relief for four groups of claimants who filed petitions for Monitor review. Upon consideration of plaintiffs' motions, defendant's response, plaintiffs' reply and defendant's surreply, the Court concludes that both motions for reconsideration must be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

On April 14, 1999, this Court approved and entered a Consent Decree in these consolidated actions that was designed to bring resolution and finality to the claims of race discrimination of those class members who opted to have their claims resolved under the adjudication or arbitration processes provided in the Consent Decree. See Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999), aff'd, 206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The Consent Decree provided that the Court would appoint an independent Monitor and that the Monitor would have the authority to direct the facilitator, adjudicator, or arbitrator to re-examine a claim if the Monitor determined that a "clear and manifest error" had occurred and had resulted in, or was likely to result in, a "fundamental miscarriage of justice." Consent Decree ¶ 12(b)(iii). The Consent Decree did not provide a time limit within which a claimant could petition for Monitor review of his or her claim. See id.

To bring finality to the proceedings under the Consent Decree, the parties stipulated on July 14, 2000, that any claimant who had already received an adverse decision from the Adjudicator would have 120 days from the date of the Order, until November 13, 2000, to file a petition for Monitor review. See July 14, 2000 Stipulation and Order ("Stipulation and Order") at 4.*fn1 They further stipulated that all claimants who were to receive adjudication decisions after July 14, 2000 would have 120 days from the date of their adverse decision to file a petition for Monitor review. See id. The Stipulation and Order specifically provided that "[n]o extensions of these deadlines will be granted for any reason." Id. The Court approved this agreement. See id.*fn2

The Court provided in a later Order that instead of filing fully supported petitions for Monitor review, counsel could instead submit a Register of Petitions that would list all claimants who received a decision prior to the July 14, 2000 Stipulation and Order and had asked counsel to provide assistance with the filing of his or her petition for Monitor review. See Pigford v. Veneman, No. 97-1978, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16374, *9 (D.D.C. Nov. 8, 2000). The Court entered this Order, permitting such an abbreviated process, in order"to ensure that claimants would not bear the burden of counsel's inability to process Petitions at a rate sufficient to meet the November 13 deadline" agreed to in the July 14 Stipulation. Id. at *6. The November 8 Order laid out a time frame for filing fully supported petitions and provided that all supporting materials had to be filed no later than May 15, 2001. See id. at *9-11. On May 15, 2001, the Court reluctantly changed the deadline for filing supporting materials and withdrawals, setting a final deadline of September 15, 2001 to complete the petition process. See Pigford v. Veneman, 143 F. Supp. 2d 28, 31 (D.D.C. 2001).

The Register process discussed above did not apply to claimants receiving a decision from the Adjudicator after July 14, 2000; these claimants' petitions therefore were untimely if they were filed more than 120 days after the Adjudicator's decision. See Pigford v. Veneman, 143 F. Supp. 2d at 31. The deadline was never modified as to claimants who received their Adjudicator decisions after July 14, 2000.

The Register process also did not apply to claimants who received their adverse Adjudicator decisions before July 14, 2000, but whose names were not placed on the Register. Petitions for individuals in this situation therefore were untimely if they were not filed by the original November 13, 2000 deadline set by the Stipulation and Order. See Pigford v. Veneman, No. 97-1978, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16374 at *9.

Several hundred petitions fitting into these two excluded categories, as well as those of a few other claimants with more unique circumstances, were declared untimely by the Facilitator because they were submitted after the deadlines set by the Stipulation and Order. Plaintiffs moved the Court to direct the Facilitator to process these petitions despite their untimely nature. See Plaintiff' Motion for Four Groups of Claimants Who Filed Petitions for Monitor Review. On June 2, 2003, the Court issued an Opinion and Order denying relief for a total of 350 individual claimants whose petitions for Monitor review had been deemed untimely. See Pigford v. Veneman, 265 F. Supp. 2d 41 (D.D.C. 2003).

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs' original motion for relief argued that the Court could interpret and modify the Orders imposing the deadlines under Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or exercise its inherent equitable authority to modify the decrees. See Plaintiffs' Motion for Relief for Four Groups of Claimants Who Filed Petitions for Monitor Review at 32-36. The Court determined, however, that since the requested relief could not be granted without modification of the Court's previous orders, allowing the petitions to be filed could not be viewed as mere "interpretation." Pigford v. Veneman, 265 F. Supp. 2d at 45. The Court therefore determined that the motion for relief would be governed by the legal standard for modification. See id.*fn3

Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides in pertinent part that "upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding [where]... [5] it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or... [6] [for] any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment." Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). For a judgment to no longer be equitable, plaintiffs must identify a "significant change in circumstances" justifying modification. Rufo v. Inmates of the Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383 (1992). This Court concluded in its earlier Opinion that the circumstances described by plaintiffs (attorney error due to the high volume of petitions and inadequate notice of the 120-day deadline) did not warrant modification of the Court's previous Orders. See Pigford v. Veneman, 265 F. Supp. 2d at 46-50. The Court noted that the high volume of petitions was apparent at the time the Stipulation was negotiated by counsel for the parties and approved by the Court; accordingly, there were no changed circumstances based on attorney error. See id. at 46-48. Similarly, the Court held that the Stipulation and Order did not require language regarding the 120-day deadline to be included in the Track A and Track B decisions of the Adjudicator and Arbitrator and that the absence of such language also did not constitute changed circumstances. See id. at 47-49. The Court also found that various unique situations presented by a handful of other claimants did not warrant relief from the Court. See id. at 49-50. The Court concluded that plaintiffs had "failed to demonstrate changed circumstances sufficient to justify modification either under Rule 60(b) or the Court's inherent equitable powers" and denied plaintiffs' motion for relief. Id. at 51. Plaintiffs now ask the Court to reconsider that decision.

Plaintiffs have filed two separate motions for reconsideration of the Court's June 2, 2003 Opinion and Order. Because both raise similar issues, ...


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