By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Women and Hispanic farmers who say they were discriminated against by the USDA have until March 25, 2013, to file a claim with the agency.
The USDA is offering a voluntary claims process for these farmers and ranchers who say they were denied USDA farm loans for discriminatory reasons during certain periods from 1981-2000. A total of at least $1.33 billion is available for compensation.
In addition, $160 million is available for debt relief to those who currently owe the USDA money for eligible farm loans. Those who agree to participate in the claims process forego their right to file a lawsuit. There is no cost to submit a claim.
For women farmers, the discrimination had to occur between Jan. 1, 1981-Dec. 31, 1996, or Oct. 19, 1998-Oct. 19, 2000. For Hispanic farmers, the time periods are Jan. 1, 1981-Dec. 31, 1996, or Oct. 13, 1998-Oct. 13, 2000.
Under the claims process, women and Hispanic farmers could each receive an award of up to $50,000 or up to $250,000 in cash, depending on the evidence submitted, USDA said. Claimants may also receive an additional amount – equal to 25 percent of the combined cash award plus the principal amount of debt relief – to help pay any federal taxes.
Acceptable documentation includes the loan application, a written discrimination complaint filed with the USDA within a year of the alleged incident and written statements from witnesses. Claims will be decided by an adjudicator with independent decision-making authority, USDA said. To request a claims package, contact the claims call center at 888-508-4429 or visit www.farmerclaims.gov
“The opening of this claims process is part of USDA’s ongoing efforts to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure fair treatment to all current and future customers,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Sept. 24, when the claims deadline was announced.
A lawsuit on behalf of more than 100 Hispanic farmers was initially filed against USDA in 2000. Also in 2000, 10 female farmers filed a discrimination suit against the agency over its administration of farm loan programs.
USDA previously set up similar claims processes for black and Native American farmers who also had brought discrimination complaints against the agency. The Pigford II case settlement with black farmers was announced in February 2010, and the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers, in October 2010. Both settlements later received court approval.
These cases were certified as class actions, while the cases for women and Hispanic farmers have not been and are still pending in the courts as individual matters, USDA said.
One of the attorneys representing the women farmers said her clients appreciate the Obama administration is offering a claim resolution program, but said the program offered to women and Hispanic farmers is inferior to those offered to black and Native American farmers.
“We are pleased that a program exists for women farmers, and we encourage women farmers to consider whether they want to participate,” said Kristine J. Dunne, an attorney with Arent Fox LLP. “Now that the program has officially begun, we hope that USDA will take steps to address confusion and clarify questions prompted by its documents. We would be happy to work with the administration in such an effort.”
For example, the claim form for women and Hispanic farmers is 16 pages long, while the form for black and Native American farmers was eight pages in length, Dunne said. Also, unlike the black and Native American programs, the government will not provide women and Hispanic farmers with counsel to assist them in the process, she noted.
Attempts to reach USDA officials involved in the claims process were unsuccessful.
The 16-page form is repetitive and convoluted, said Rudy Arredondo, founder, president and CEO of the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Assoc.
“It’s mean-spirited, it’s really awful,” he said. “It’s designed to confuse you, to entrap you. Be very wary in how you answer.”
Arredondo’s organization doesn’t represent Latino farmers, but is providing them with information on the process.
The fact that Hispanic and women farmers haven’t been designated as certified classes plays into the complexity of the process, he said. “It’s adding insult to injury. They’re being discriminated against when trying to address grievances that weren’t their fault.”
Arredondo recommends farmers have legal representation while working through the claims process.