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Judge Signs Huge U.S. Deal With Black Farmers

(CN) - A Washington federal judge approved the government-backed settlement that will provide $1.25 billion in relief to thousands of black farmers wronged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman granted class certification and approved the settlement agreement that will compensate black farmers who say their race motivated USDA officials to deny them benefits and ignore their complaints. The farmers say this practice went on at the USDA from January 1983 to January 1997.

The settlement class consists of those farmers who missed the deadline when submitting their claims for relief in a process established by the Pigford v. Glickman consent decree on April 14, 1999.

The 2008 Farm Bill gave late claimants another shot at relief, and that $100 million fund got another boost from the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. Signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 8, 2010, this law gave the secretary of agriculture another $1.15 billion to supplement the 2008 Farm Bill settlement funds, if it passed muster in the court.

The class members include individuals who sent late-filing requests between Oct. 13, 1999 - the day after the cut for Pigford claims - and June 18, 2008 - the day the 2008 Farm Bill went into effect.

The class obtained preliminary certification and settlement approval on May 13, 2011. The court then gave those opposed to the settlement an opportunity to speak up at a day-long fairness hearing on Sept. 1, 2011.

"It is significant that only approximately 15 likely class members have made objections to the settlement," Friedman wrote in the 70-page opinion.

Attorney Precious Martin represents 10 of those possible class members who oppose the settlement, but her clients' arguments did not sway Friedman from certifying the class or approving the settlement.

In general, Friedman praised the attorneys involved in the settlement case, which consolidated 23 complaints and 40,000 plaintiffs.

"Although this case, involving many separate legal complaints and scores of attorneys, could have devolved into an endless series of squabbles between rival attorneys, class counsel, representing the vast majority of plaintiffs who have filed complaints under the 2008 Farm Bill, have managed to band together and to negotiate with the defendant a single comprehensive settlement," he wrote.

"Despite the large number of attorneys designated as class counsel, the responses of counsel to the orders of this court have been prompt, efficient, and well-coordinated," Friedman added.

"Class members have received more than adequate notice and have had sufficient opportunity to be heard on the fairness of the proposed settlement," the judge wrote.

Hefty attorneys' fees are still a problem for some, with Friedman devoting 6 1/2 pages to the topic.

"In the absence of the services of class counsel, the members of the plaintiffs' class would not be in a position to divide up $1.25 billion (less implementation costs); they would be engaged in a chaotic struggle to win a portion of the $100 million appropriated by the 2008 Farm Bill before those funds ran out," he wrote. "As the Claims Resolution Act's specific references to the settlement agreement make clear, the execution of an agreement between class counsel and defendant's counsel was a necessary catalyst leading to the appropriation of a great deal of additional funding for this litigation."

Friedman's conclusion reflects on the historical significance of the Pigford consent decree:

"Forty acres and a mule. That was the promise made by the government to those former slaves who wanted to farm land in the South after the Civil War. As detailed in this court's opinion in Pigford I, for most African-Americans the promise of forty acres and a mule was never kept, and the United States Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners to whom it delegated so much power bear much of the responsibility for the broken promise to those African-American farmers and their descendents. In the early 1900's, there were 925,000 African-American farmers in the United States farming 16 million acres of farmland. By the time the court approved the Pigford I consent decree, there were fewer than 18,000 African-American farms in the United States and African-American farmers owned less than three million acres of land. As the court said 12 years ago in approving the consent decree, '[n]othing can completely undo the discrimination of the past or restore lost land or lost opportunities' to the many African-American farmers who were part of the Pigford I class. Historical discrimination cannot be undone, but the Pigford I consent decree was a significant first step, a step that had been a long time coming."

"Today, because of a congress that was willing to once again waive the statute of limitations and to appropriate $1.25 billion to help further redress the historic discrimination against African-American farmers, the court is pleased to approve the settlement agreement proposed by the moving plaintiffs, and endorsed by the United States, as fair, reasonable, and adequate. It will also approve the appointment of the neutrals who will participate in the implementation of the agreement. This settlement is the product of extraordinary efforts by private litigants and their counsel, by the congress, and by the executive branch."

Requests for claims packages have surpassed 62,000.


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