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Pigford v. Schafer

February 20, 2008

TIMOTHY PIGFORD, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
EDWARD T. SCHAFER, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE,*FN1 DEFENDANT.
CECIL BREWINGTON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
EDWARD T. SCHAFER, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on two motions to enforce the Consent Decree governing the settlement of this case. The first motion is brought by class members George Roberts and Ernest and Ruth Banks. The second is brought by the estates of class members Robert and Jessie Howard.*fn2 Because the two motions raise essentially the same issues, the Court will address them together.*fn3

As discussed more fully below, all plaintiffs are "prevailing class members" and therefore are entitled to the discharge of any debt made eligible for debt relief by the Consent Decree. The question presented is when plaintiffs "incurred" their outstanding debts to the Department of Agriculture. The question is important because the debt relief provisions of the Consent Decree entitle a prevailing class member to the discharge of all debts (1) directly affected by defendant's discriminatory behavior toward the class member, and (2) all debts subsequently incurred in the same program(s) in which the prevailing class member suffered discrimination. See Pigford v. Veneman, Civil Action No. 97-1978 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2001) ("Debt Relief Stipulation and Order"); MONITOR'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON AMENDED DECISIONS at 16-18 (July 9, 2007), available at http://www.pigfordmonitor.org/ reports/rpt20070709_amenddec.pdf.

I. THE COURT'S AUTHORITY TO ENFORCE THE CONSENT DECREE

As an initial matter, it is important to emphasize that "district courts enjoy no free-ranging 'ancillary' [or inherent] jurisdiction to [interpret or] enforce consent decrees." Pigford v. Veneman, 292 F.3d 918, 924 (D.C. Cir. 2002). A district court's power to interpret or enforce a consent decree is necessarily limited by a decree's "hybrid character," which includes "qualities of both contracts and court orders." Id. at 923. Thus, district courts may exercise only two types of authority over consent decrees: "First, they may interpret and enforce a decree to the extent authorized either by the decree or the related order. . . . Second, they may modify a decree pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5)." Id. The Supreme Court has held that a decree modification may be warranted by a "significant change in circumstances." Rufo v. Inmates of the Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383 (1992).

Here, plaintiffs invoke the Court's power to interpret and enforce the Consent Decree pursuant to paragraphs 13 and 21 of that Decree. Under those provisions, the Court retains jurisdiction to enforce the Consent Decree through contempt proceedings if a party alleges a violation of its terms. See Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82, 110 (D.D.C. 1999).*fn4

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Consent Decree

This Court approved the Consent Decree embodying the class action settlement of the Pigford lawsuit on April 14, 1999. See Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. at 113. The Consent Decree creates a mechanism for resolving individual claims of class members outside the traditional litigation process. See id. at 94. Class members may choose between two claims procedures, known as Track A and Track B. Track A awards $50,000 in monetary damages, debt relief, tax relief, and injunctive relief to those claimants able to meet a minimal burden of proof. See id. at 103. Track A claims are decided by a third-party neutral known as the adjudicator. Track B imposes no cap on damages and also provides for debt relief and injunctive relief. Claimants who choose Track B must prove their claims by a preponderance of the evidence in one-day mini-trials before a third-party neutral known as the arbitrator. See id. at 106.

Decisions of the adjudicator and the arbitrator are final, except that the monitor, a court-appointed third-party neutral, may on petition direct the adjudicator and the arbitrator to re-examine claims if the monitor determines that "a clear and manifest error has occurred" that is "likely to result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice." See Consent Decree ¶¶ 9(a)(v), 9(b)(v), 10(i), 12(b)(iii).

B. Debt Relief

Class members who prevail under either Track A or Track B are entitled to certain forms of debt relief in addition to monetary damages, injunctive relief, and, in Track A, tax relief. With respect to prevailing Track A claimants, the Consent Decree provides that

[i]n any case in which the adjudicator decides in a class member's favor, . . . USDA shall discharge all of the class member's outstanding debt to USDA that was incurred under, or affected by, the program(s) that was/were the subject of the ECOA claim(s) resolved in the class member's favor by the adjudicator.

Consent Decree ¶ 9(a)(iii)(A). With respect to prevailing Track B claimants, the Consent Decree provides that

[i]f the arbitrator determines that the class member has demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that he was the victim of racial discrimination and that he suffered damages therefrom, . . . USDA shall discharge all of the class member's outstanding debt to the Farm Service Agency that was incurred under, or affected by, the program(s) that ...


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