Hundreds of black farmers file claims against USDA

More than 800 black farmers filed a new lawsuit against the Agriculture Department just two weeks after Congress reopened a 1999 settlement over past discrimination.

The plaintiffs wasted little time in taking advantage of a provision in the recently enacted farm bill that allows fresh claims from those who were denied damages after missing earlier deadlines.

Some 75,000 people could fall into that group. If their suits are successful, the case could cost the government several billion dollars on top of the $980 million in damages already paid under the original settlement.

The lawsuit, organized by the Virginia-based National Black Farmers Association, was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington. Nearly all the 823 farmers who sued are from the South, mostly from Alabama and Mississippi.

Those who filed late argued that their lawyers made mistakes or that they were not aware of the deadline.

The deadline was extended once for those who could show extraordinary circumstances. But federal courts repeatedly denied subsequent requests to reopen the settlement until Congress intervened with the farm bill.

The enacted bill permits plaintiffs to seek expedited claims of $50,000 under a lower threshold of proof than a typical civil case. Plaintiffs also can seek larger damages in court.

Clarion Ledger
6/4/8