USDA claims process fought
Women, Hispanics ask for improvements in discrimination settlement program
By SEAN ELLIS
Women and Hispanic farmers have filed legal challenges to the claims process the U.S. Department of Agriculture is using to resolve allegations of discrimination.
The USDA's claims program addresses allegations from Hispanic and women farmers that they were discriminated against at Farm Service Agency offices while seeking farms loans from 1981 to 2000.
The process is inferior to similar programs offered in the past to American Indian and African American farmers, said Arent Fox attorney Kristine Dunne, who represents a group of women farmers who have filed a legal complaint against the program.
She said the plaintiffs don't want the program halted, "but we want some improvements in the process so it's a good, meaningful process."
The USDA program is available to farmers who claim they were denied a loan, received it late, received a lesser amount than they were entitled to or were discouraged by FSA personnel from even applying.
It kicked off Sept. 24 and runs through March 25 and makes available at least $1.33 billion for cash awards and tax relief payments, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief.
Adam Feinberg, an attorney representing Hispanic farmers who have filed a separate legal claim against the USDA program, said the process "has a whole host of problems" when compared with ones for other minority groups.
"The procedural and evidentiary burdens ... are more difficult than they were for African American and Native American farmers," he said.
He said that includes requiring Hispanic farmers to present either an eyewitness to the alleged incident, a copy of a complaint filed within a year of it, or a letter describing the incident sent to USDA within a year.
He said while USDA provided free legal counsel for American Indians and African Americans, Hispanic farmers have to hire their own attorney if they want one.
"Our argument is, you can't design a different process for one racial group than you do for another racial group. In addition to being unjust and immoral, it's unconstitutional," he said.
FSA Administrator Juan Garcia said unlike the lawsuits filed by African Americans and American Indians, the cases filed by women and Hispanics were not certified as class actions.
In the class action cases, the settlements were binding on all parties to the suits, and the settlement process was part of the agreement.
In the case of women and Hispanics, the USDA has voluntarily set up a process to settle individual claims as an alternative to litigation. Unlike African Americans and American Indians, individual women and Hispanics can pursue their claims in court.
He said the USDA had held about 100 meetings in communities that have a high number of women and Hispanic farmers and a major agency goal is to ensure these groups know about the program and know the agency is committed to treating everyone fairly.
There were more than 500,000 Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers in the United States, according to the 2007 Census of Ag.
which showed 9,116 principal operators of farms or ranches in California were Hispanic. In Washington, the number was 1,643, in Oregon it was 789 and in Idaho it was 610.
There were 14,965 women farmers in California, 8,255 in Oregon, 8,090 in Washington and 3,151 in Idaho.
More information about the USDA program can be found at www.farmerclaims.gov or by calling 888-508-4429.