Tuesday, September 29, 2009

As discrimination suit enters new phase, Indian farmers hope for a settlement from administration

Native American farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1999, but the discovery process for the suit is only now wrapping up. The suit alleges that USDA exhibited "widespread racial discrimination in loan programs meant to be a resource of last resort for those turned down by banks," Kari Lydersen of The Washington Post reports. A similar lawsuit, known as the Pigford suit, filed by African American farmers, was settled in 1999, but President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $1.25 billion more for Pigford claimants who missed the 2000 filing deadline.

Native Americans hope Obama's support for Pigford claimants may signal an eventual settlement for their case, Lyndersen reports. The suit seeks compensation for Native American farmers who alleged discrimination by the USDA's loan programs between 1981 and 1999. Lead attorney Joseph M. Sellers thinks tens of thousands of people were denied up to $3 billion of credit, and uses USDA formulas to estimate plaintiffs are owed $1 billion in lost income, Lydersen reports. The plaintiffs are not seeking punitive damages.

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong told Lydersen that discussion of a settlement is premature, but the department has acknowledged past problems, and Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged to improve diversity and equal opportunity in the agency. "I intend to lead the department in correcting its past errors, learning from its mistakes, and moving forward to a new era of equitable service and access for all," he said in an April memo. (Read more)

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