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Estate of Earnest Lee Boyland v. Young

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 16, 2017

ESTATE OF EARNEST BOYLAND, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHAEL YOUNG, Acting Secretary, U.S. Dep't of Agriculture, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN, United States District Judge

         In this case brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, and the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Plaintiffs allege that they have been discriminated against by Defendants U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and Epiq Class Action & Claims Solutions, Inc. in the denial of their administrative discrimination claims. Before the court are Defendants' motions to dismiss. (ECF Nos. 5, 18). For the reasons stated below, both motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs in this case are the estates of three Black farmers who seek compensation for past discrimination by the USDA, as well as the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, Inc. (“BFAA”), an organization which advocates for redress of the USDA's past discrimination. (Compl. ¶ 1). This case relates to litigation that has been ongoing in some form for over twenty years. Following decades of discrimination by the USDA against Black farmers in the denial, delay, or frustration of their applications for farm loans or other benefit programs, the federal government entered into a class settlement consent decree. See Pigford v. Glickman (“Pigford I”), 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999). Following this settlement, the USDA awarded over one billion dollars in compensation and relief to approximately 16, 000 successful claimants. In re Black Farmers Discrim. Litig. (“Pigford II”), 856 F.Supp.2d 1, 10-11 (D.D.C. 2011). Over 60, 000 additional claimants sought compensation under the Pigford I consent decree but were denied because their claims were untimely. Id. at 11. After conducting hearings into the Pigford I settlement and claims process, Congress “resurrected the claims of those who had unsuccessfully petitioned the Arbitrator for permission to submit late claim packages” by passing the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (“2008 Farm Bill”). Id. Approximately 40, 000 claimants filed complaints in this court following the 2008 Farm Bill, and their claims were consolidated into the Pigford II litigation. Id. at 13. In 2011, the court in that case approved an additional settlement consent decree, with a potential total payout of an additional one billion dollars. See White v. Vilsack, 80 F.Supp.3d 123, 125 (D.D.C. 2015) (recounting Pigford history). Unlike in Pigford I, the class members in Pigford II were not permitted to opt out, and the settlement terms were thus binding on all class members. See Id. at 126.

         During the same time period, the USDA was engaged in class action litigation with other plaintiffs who similarly alleged discrimination by the agency. Two lawsuits on behalf of Hispanic farmers and female farmers were brought in 2000, but the courts denied class certification in both cases. See Garcia v. Johanns, 444 F.3d 625 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (affirming denials). Following these denials of class certification, the USDA voluntarily created an alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) administrative claims process for Hispanic and female farmers to resolve their discrimination claims against the USDA. See Love v. Vilsack, 304 F.R.D. 85, 87 (D.D.C. 2014) (describing administrative process established by the USDA); Garcia v. Vilsack, 304 F.R.D. 77, 79 (D.D.C. 2014) (same). Participation in this administrative claims process was conditioned on dismissal of the farmer's discrimination claims against the USDA. Defendant Epiq was selected to be the claims administrator. (Compl. ¶¶ 4-6).

         Plaintiffs in this case-the estates of Earnest Boyland, David Shelton, and Lee Sylvester Caldwell-allege that they faced discrimination by the USDA during the relevant time period underlying the Pigford I litigation but failed to submit claims under either the Pigford I or Pigford II consent decrees. (Compl. ¶¶ 66, 68 (Boyland), 82 (Shelton), 89 (Caldwell)). Instead, in March 2013 Plaintiffs attempted to file claims under the ADR process established to resolve claims brought by Hispanic and female farmers, and their claims were denied because the claimants identified as Black male farmers, not Hispanic or female. (Id. ¶¶ 71-73 (Boyland), 78-79 (Shelton), 85-86 (Caldwell)). Plaintiffs, including BFAA, on behalf of themselves and all similarly situated individuals, brought this litigation alleging violations of their Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection, as well as violations of Title VI. BFAA also attempted to intervene in the Love and Garcia cases to bring similar constitutional claims, but the court denied intervention. See Love, 304 F.R.D. at 89-92; Garcia, 304 F.R.D. at 81-85.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when it alleges sufficient facts to permit the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Thus, although a plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion even where “recovery is very remote and unlikely, ” the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Title VI Claims

         In Counts I through IV, Plaintiffs allege that Epiq's denials of their claims violated Title VI because its determinations that they were ineligible for compensation were impermissibly based on their race. (Compl. ¶¶ 48-91). Under Title VI, “[n]o 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 subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. Epiq argues that Plaintiffs' Title VI claims should be dismissed because (1) Title VI does not apply to the USDA's administrative claims process at issue here and (2) a Title VI claim cannot be brought against Epiq because it does not receive federal financial assistance.[1] The court agrees.

         Title VI defines “program or activity” as the operations of a state or local government, a higher education institution, a local educational agency or school system, or corporations and other private entities “principally engaged in the business of providing education, health care, housing, social services, or parks and recreation.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-4a(1)-(4). This statutory definition excludes federal agencies, and therefore it is well-recognized that Title VI does not reach “the operations of the federal government and its agencies.” DynaLantic Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 885 F.Supp.2d 237, 291 (D.D.C. 2012); see also Wise v. Glickman, 257 F.Supp.2d 123, 132 (D.D.C. 2003); Williams v. Glickman, 936 F.Supp. 1, 5 (D.D.C. 1996). In the court's view, USDA's voluntary ADR process for resolving discrimination claims brought by Hispanic or female farmers against USDA is not a “program or activity” under the statutory definition because it does not involve any of the listed entities and therefore falls outside the scope of Title VI's coverage. While USDA has contracted with Epiq - a private corporation - to process individuals' claims, Plaintiffs have not alleged any facts that Epiq is “principally engaged in the business of providing education, health care, housing, social services, or parks and recreation” in order to fall within the statutory definition for a covered “program or activity” under Title VI.

         Even if Epiq were covered by the statutory definition, Plaintiffs must further allege that Epiq receives federal financial assistance to carry out its program or activity. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. While the term “financial assistance” is not defined by the statute, under USDA's Title VI regulations, promulgated pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1, “financial assistance” is defined as

(1) grants and loans of Federal funds, (2) the grant or donation of Federal property and interests in property, (3) the detail of Federal personnel, (4) the sale and lease of, and the permission to use (on other than a casual or transient basis), Federal property or any interest in such property or the furnishing of services without consideration or at a nominal consideration, or at a consideration which is reduced for the purpose of assisting the recipient, or in recognition of the public interest to be served by such sale, lease or furnishing of services ...

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