WICHITA, Kan. – Black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (search) on Thursday with claims that the government discriminates against them in loans and farm programs — allegations that also were at issue in a sweeping civil rights case settled five years ago.
The new lawsuit seeks $20.5 billion and class-action status for up to 25,000 blacks who farmed or attempted to farm between 1997 and 2004. The lawsuit also claims that the USDA is retaliating against farmers who collected payments from the 1999 settlement.
The farmers in that case said that they had been systematically denied federal loans and subsidies for years. The settlement has been criticized, especially since an August report by the Environmental Working Group (search) and the National Black Farmers Association (search) found many farmers' claims were rejected.
The report said about 96,000 black farmers sought restitution under the settlement; 72,438 of those claims were rejected in arbitration; and 7,800 for failing to meet filing deadlines.
The new lawsuit was filed by the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association (search) and 11 other plaintiffs.
One plaintiff, Tennessee farmer Charlie Scott, collected $50,000 from the settlement of the first lawsuit, but said he has been denied credit by the USDA since then.
Another farmer, Larry Thomas of Arkansas, applied for an operating loan in February 2000 but received less money than he requested, and it came too late to plant crops, the lawsuit says. Thomas is facing land foreclosure, according to the lawsuit.
"The last thing in the world the African-American should be denied is the right to farm — that is the reason we were brought here. ... Farming should be an entitlement to black folk. Our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers paid for that opportunity," said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.
The Agriculture Department said it could not comment on pending litigation. However, USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said the agency's record on implementing and observing civil rights laws during the Bush Administration has been exemplary.
"We have implemented numerous initiatives to improve our service to all farmers and ranchers, especially minorities and women," he said. "That is something that has been a priority for us and we have a very strong record of accomplishment on that."
The USDA declined to comment on the earlier settlement, saying an independent auditor distributed those funds.