U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Resolution of Discrimination Complaints Involving Farm Credit and Payment Programs
GAO-01-521R, Apr 12, 2001
Discrimination complaints by minority farmers who were denied benefits under the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) farm assistance programs have been a long-standing issue. In 1997, a group of African-American farmers consolidated their claims of racial discrimination in farm lending and benefit programs into one class action suit against USDA. In April 1999, a federal district court approved a consent decree to settle the suit that included a framework for resolving the individual claims. This correspondence examines (1) the status of claims under the class action settlement and (2) the results of the Department's efforts to resolve discrimination complaints by minority farmers through its administrative processes. GAO found that the consent decree provides for various parties outside the federal government to decide on the individual claims on the basis of information submitted by the claimants and USDA. Although USDA participates in the process, it does not make decisions on the individual claims. As of January 2001, more than 25,000 people had filed claims under the consent decree. At the same time, however, more than 3,600 claimants were rejected as not being eligible class members, and more than 7,900 who met the class eligibility criteria were found not to be entitled to a payment. Many of these people appealed these decisions to a court-appointed party. Furthermore, the court extended the deadline for filing a claim, and more than 57,000 individuals have submitted written requests to file late claims. The resolution of discrimination complaints through USDA's administrative process differs significantly from the resolution of the class action. In particular, for cases handled under USDA's administrative process, USDA makes decisions on the discrimination complaints. Its Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates allegations of discrimination, decides if there is evidence of discrimination, and negotiates settlements with complainants when it finds that discrimination has occurred. USDA's Office of General Counsel reviews the cases in which OCR found evidence of discrimination to determine the legal propriety of the finding and of the proposed award. Finally, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) implements settlement agreements in which discrimination was found to have occurred in programs that the agency operates.The payments to settle these complaints came from FSA's farm loan program accounts.