More than 800 black farmers file new suit against the USDA

Published: Thursday, June 5 2008 12:07 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — More than 800 black farmers filed a new lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture 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.

John Boyd, a black farmer who founded the group, said he expects another 5,000 to join the lawsuit soon.

The suit is the latest development in the federal government's April 1999 settlement of a class-action lawsuit from black farmers who claimed they were systematically denied loans and other aid from local USDA offices. About two-thirds of the nearly 22,500 farmers who filed suit were awarded damages.

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.

The USDA and the Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Critics have charged that farmers had plenty of time to win claims and that reopening the case will reward questionable claimants who may not have suffered losses.

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