Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hispanic farmers face uphill battle for damages in discrimination claims against USDA

We recently reported about the 10-year-old class-action lawsuit brought by Native American farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture; now Wade Goodwyn of National Public Radio reports that Hispanic farmers have been fighting a similar battle for almost a decade with little or no results. The federal government reached a $1 billion settlement with black farmers in the 1990s, but like Native Americans, Hispanics have had no such luck. Like black farmers, Hispanics allege the department's Farm Service Agency denied or delayed loans and failed to respond to allegations of wrong-doing, but a court ruling has prevented Hispanic farmers from suing the government as a class. They are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Unlike in the Pigford [black farmers] case, the court has rejected the plaintiff's request for class certification, which means their claims will all be litigated on an individual basis," Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told Goodwyn." Because of that, because of the judge's ruling, we will not be able to negotiate a class-wide settlement." The government says it is open to discussing settlements on a case-by-case basis, but Hispanic farmers were further angered by President Obama's recent statements that the $1 billion settlement with black farmers was not sufficient.

"It makes no sense legally, morally or even politically, to treat these farmers the way they have thus far been treated," Stephen Hill, lead counsel for the Hispanic farmers, tells Goodwyn. "The claims are exactly the same as the claims as the black farmers, and they're entitled to the same recompense for their injuries." In 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified to Congress about a long history of discrimination in the loan program. Current Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he hopes to reverse the discriminatory reputation of the USDA. Despite the USDA's admission of discrimination, Goodywn reports, no employee has ever been fired, demoted or reprimanded for discrimination. The Hispanic farmers' lawyers say some of the worst offenders have even been promoted. (Read more)

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