A group of Hispanic farmers is pursuing a class action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice, accusing officials of offering Hispanic farmers less generous terms when settling discrimination claims than those offered to African American and Native American farmers.
The class action was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of David Cantu and five other Hispanic farmers. The class is being represented by Stephen Hill of Washington’s Howrey; the firm dissolved Tuesday, but Hill said in a phone interview that based on talks with firm management, he will continue to pursue the case under the Howrey flag “for the foreseeable future.”
In the complaint, the farmers point to the USDA’s admission in 1997 that minority farmers had faced discrimination in the administration of federal farm programs for decades. Minority farmers were shut out of loans, for instance, and the department had consistently failed to investigate complaints of discrimination.
The Hispanic farmers claim that when it came time to settle separate suits brought against the USDA by four minority groups – African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and women – following the 1997 revelation, the USDA failed to offer the same terms to Hispanics as it did to African American and Native American farmers. The suit notes that the women farmers were offered the same deal as the Hispanic farmers, but Hill said he is not aware of any legal action on that matter to date.
“The government has basically forced us to bring this lawsuit because of its recalcitrance and blatant discrimination against these farmers,” Hill said.
USDA spokesman Justin DeJong, in a written statement, said today that Secretary Tom Vilsack "has been intent on resolving all claims of past discrimination."
"Hispanic, Black, Native American and women farmers now have a meaningful approach to bring resolution to their claims. Each approach provides an option for compensation for individuals who may have faced discrimination, but individuals are of course able to choose a legal path that best fits their personal situation," DeJong said.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Jessica Smith, also in a written statement, agreed with DeJong and added that while the department is reviewing the new complaint, they are moving forward with the claims process.
The first of the four suits was brought in 1997 by a group of African American farmers. The suit was settled and, according to the complaint, about $1 billion in claims have been paid out to date and an additional $1.25 billion was authorized in 2010 to cover additional claims. The government also settled with Native American farmers after they filed suit in 1999. In both settlements, the farmers were provided with a way of pursuing claims in excess of $50,000.
Following negotiations between the government and Hispanic and women farmers – who both filed suit in 2000 – the Hispanic and women farmers were recently presented with a proposal for the two groups to split a $1.33 billion fund; claims would be capped at $50,000. To pursue a larger claim, the farmers would have to file a federal lawsuit.
A Feb. 25 press release from the USDA and Justice Department said the settlement proposal is part of the government’s “continued efforts to close the chapter on allegations that discrimination occurred at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
“Under the resolution announced today, USDA and Hispanic and women farmers will be able to move forward and focus on the future,” Assistant Attorney General Tony West said in the written statement. “The administrative process being established will give Hispanic and women farmers who believe they suffered discrimination the chance to have their claims heard.”
But the Hispanic farmers, in their complaint, accuse officials of violating their Fifth Amendment rights by treating them differently than the African American and Native American farmers based on their race, even though the underlying claims of discrimination are the same.
In the complaint, the farmers argue that the $50,000 cap and a higher standard of proof required to prove discrimination represent a worse deal. The complaint also notes that there is a chance Hispanic and women farmers would receive less than $50,000, since the total fund was set at a maximum of $1.33 billion.
Barbara Wahl of Washington’s Arent Fox, which is serving as the lead plaintiffs’ counsel in the suit filed by the women farmers, said the women farmers are still negotiating with officials over the settlement terms. She declined to comment on the Hispanic farmers’ class action because she has yet to review it.
She cited the higher burden of proof of discrimination required for Hispanic and women farmers seeking damages as a particular problem. Under the current terms, Hispanic and women farmers would be required to show original documentation, which in some cases could mean coming up with documents that are more than 30 years old; African American and Native American farmers are not required to do the same, she said.
“We’re happy that [agriculture and justice department officials] are willing to step up to the plate to do something,” she said. But, she added, “We think there are still some problems with the proposal.”
Updated at 5:19 p.m. with statements from the USDA and DOJ.