The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official websites] on Wednesday announced a settlement [press release] in a class action discrimination lawsuit filed against the USDA in 1999 by Native American farmers. Under the agreement, the USDA will distribute $680 million to all eligible class members who alleged they were denied low-interest rate loans [CNN report] that were given to white farmers from 1981 to 2007. The settlement will be distributed under two payment "tracks." Farmers in the class who "provide substantial evidence of discrimination" to an adjudicator will receive up to $50,000. Farmers in the class who have "stronger evidence of economic losses" resulting from discriminatory practices can receive up to $250,000. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack [official profile] expressed his hope that the settlement will provide closure to both sides:
Today's settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination. The Obama Administration is committed to closing the chapter on an unfortunate civil rights history at USDA and working to ensure our customers and employees are treated justly and equally.The settlement agreement also provides debt forgiveness up to $80 million to claimants with outstanding farm loan debt and places a moratorium on foreclosures of claimants' farms. Additionally, the agreement creates a Federal Advisory Council for Native American farmers and a new ombudsman position within the department to focus on farm program issues related to Native Americans.The money will be distributed through a "judgment fund" maintained by the DOJ and the Department of the Treasury [official website] with the USDA providing up to $20 million to fund the settlement.
This latest settlement comes two months after the US Senate [official website] failed to authorize a $4.6 billion settlement [JURIST report] between the US government and several hundred thousand minority farmers for alleged discrimination. The agreement would have settled discrimination claims filed by African American farmers who missed the filing deadline in a 1999 class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman [BFAA backgrounder]. Last month, the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) [advocacy website] called on the US Senate to fund the settlement [JURIST report]. The USDA and DOJ in February announced the $1.25 billion settlement [JURIST report] for African American farmers arising from the Pigford case, in which they claimed the USDA practiced racial discrimination in its loan programs.