EPES, ALABAMA …Over 700 people attended the August 22, 2008 informational meeting at the William M. Branch County Courthouse in Eutaw, Alabama on the latest developments in the Pigford Black Farmers Class Action Lawsuit.
The meeting was convened by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and representatives of the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders and Pettaway which is part of a consortium of law firms assisting farmers in this historic case. The Eutaw meeting was one of a number of sessions held by the Federation/LAF in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to assist farmers who filed "late petitions" in the Pigford lawsuit.
The main focus of the meeting was Section 14012 of the 2008 Farm Bill, also known as the The Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (PL 110-246), which provides a new opportunity for “late claim filers” in the Pigford Black Farmers Class Action Lawsuit to have their cases heard (please go to the Federation/LAF's website for the narrative (pdf) on the Pigford lawsuit in the Farm Bill entitled "Pigford Claims in Farm Bill").
This section, added to the Farm Bill by the Black Congressional Caucus permits Black farmers to file a legal action, within two years of passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, in the same court ( U. S. District Court in Washington, D. C.) that heard the original Pigford case.
In the original Pigford case, over 22,000 farmers filed claims. Of these about 15,000 were successful receiving a payment of $50,000, a payment of $12,500 to IRS in lieu of taxes, debt relief on certain government loans subject to discrimination and injunctive relief which provided priority consideration for future USDA loans.
To be included in this new case (Pigford 2), farmers must meet two basic “tests”. First they must have filed a “late petition ” in the original case (Pigford 1) and second they must meet the requirements to be part of the class in the original case. A group of lawyers for Black farmers have already filed a case in the D. C. District Court. Some of the final decisions on the interpretation and implementation of these provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill will depend the decisions and rulings of the judge in this new case.
The first test is where are you on the “time line” of this case. The priority consideration goes to those Black farmers who filed a late claim petition between October 12, 1999 and September 15, 2000. Most of these 65,000 farmers had their late claim denied by Michael Lewis, Chief
Arbitrator, in the case. Section 14012 of the 2008 Farm Bill was designed to override these denials and give Black farmers another chance to have their cases heard.
The Honorable Paul Friedman, Federal District Judge in the case will determine how far to extend the definition of a late filer in the case. Those who filed by the late claim deadline of September 15, 2000 have the best chance. Those who filed after this date will have to depend on the decision of the judge in the case. Those who did not file a late claim with the Claims Facilitator in Portland, Oregon, and did not receive a tracking number, have a much more limited chance, which is subject to the judge’s rulings in the case.
John Zippert of the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama, explained, “you may call the Claims Facilitator in Portland, Oregon at 800-646-2873 to determine if you filed a late claim, the date of your claim and your tracking number, if one was issued to you.”
Zippert said, “that late claim filers who met the September 15, 2000 deadline will receive first consideration. It will be up to the lawyers’ arguments and the judge’s decision how far beyond this date that the definition of late will extend. The Claims Facilitator issued tracking numbers (approximately 150,000 ) until some point in 2003 but after that date they informed farmers that the case was closed. There are many farmers who learned of the case after this time that also would like to join the litigation.”
The second test for farmers is that you must meet the requirements of the class in the original Pigford 1 lawsuit. You must be able to answer “yes” to all three questions, which form the basis of your actual claim in the case. These three questions are:
1. Are you an African- American who farmed, or attempted to farm at anytime between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996?
2. Between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996, did you apply or attempt to participate in a farm loan program or other benefit program with USDA?
3. Between January 1, 1981 and July 1, 1997, did you make a verbal or written complaint of discrimination against USDA concerning treatment you received in the application process? The discrimination complaint may have been presented directly to USDA or to some other public official.
Zippert said, “there has been alot of misinformation given about this case. Some times by people who were trying to collect money and membership fees from people.
“One piece of misinformation was that this is a case for all Black people who ever farmed. This is not true. This is a case for a group of farmers who were active in the fifteen year period between 1981 and 1996. This is the time period when President Ronald Reagan closed the office in USDA that handled discrimination complaints. This meant that the government had no way to respond to complaints during this period which helped win the case for Black farmers.
“Another piece of misinformation is that you have to pay a fee or a membership dues to get into the case. This is also not true. We warn farmers to be aware of scams and people trying to make money from them in the case.”
Attorney Kindaka Sanders from the Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders and Pettaway was present at the Eutaw meeting and reviewed a “retainer agreement” that the six law farms who have joined together to provide to farmers. The agreement includes a provision for a legal fee of twenty percent plus expenses for the lawyers, if the farmer is successful in getting funds through the lawsuit. The agreement also states that the lawyers will work to collect their fees from the government over and above what the farmers are paid.
Farmers who need more information about the case may contact the Federation of Southern Cooperatives at the Rural Training and Research Center, P. O. Box 95, Epes, Alabama 35460; phone: 205 652 9676 or at www.federation.coop.