Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Urges Congressional Action on the Pigford Settlement Agreement
WASHINGTON–Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today released the following statement on the need for Congressional action to fund the Pigford II settlement agreement:
“Black farmers throughout the country unfortunately faced discrimination in past decades when trying to obtain services from USDA. This discrimination is well-documented, the courts have affirmed this discrimination, and Congress has twice acknowledged the need to settle with those who have suffered from this discrimination. It is now time for Congress to pass the funding so the victims of this discrimination can get the opportunity to receive the compensation that they are due.
“While members of Congress have noted the bipartisan support for this legislation, it is time for Congress to turn their support into action and fund the settlement agreement once and for all. The time for Congressional action to fund the settlement agreement is running out, and the victims of this discrimination should not need to wait a day longer.
Congress should not leave today without exhausting every option for passing legislation that provides for the funding.
Pigford v. Glickman was a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging racial discrimination in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1983 and 1997. The lawsuit ended with a settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay African American farmers US$50,000 each if they had attempted to get USDA help but failed. To date, almost US$1 billion has been paid or credited to the farmers under the settlement’s consent decree.
The lawsuit was filed in 1997 by Timothy Pigford, who was joined by 400 additional African American farmer plaintiffs. Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture, was the nominal defendant. The allegations were that the USDA treated black farmers unfairly when deciding to allocate price support loans, disaster payments, “farm ownership” loans, and operating loans, and that the USDA had completely failed to process subsequent complaints about racial discrimination.
After the lawsuit was filed, Pigford requested blanket mediation to cover what was thought to be about 2,000 farmers who may have been discriminated against, but the U.S. Department of Justice opposed the mediation, saying that each case had to be investigated separately. As the case moved toward trial, the presiding judge certified as a class all black farmers who filed discrimination complaints against the USDA between 1983 and 1997.
The plaintiffs settled with the government in 1999. Under the consent decree, all African American farmers would be paid a “virtually automatic” US$50,000 plus granted certain loan forgiveness and tax offsets. This process was called “Track A”.
Alternatively, affected farmers could follow the “Track B” process, seeking a larger payment by presenting a greater amount of evidence–the legal standard in this case was to have a preponderance of evidence along with evidence of greater damages.
In 2004, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association filed a US$20.5 billion class action lawsuit against the USDA for the same practices, alleging racially discriminatory practices between 1997 and 2004. The lawsuit was dismissed when the BFAA failed to show it had standing to bring the suit.