The government, pushed by a federal judge, agreed Friday to accept outside mediation of black farmers’ complaints that they have been denied a fair share of agricultural loans.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lawyers who say they represent 2,000 African-American growers said they would try to resolve the farmers’ $2 billion class-action suit in six months with the help of a mediator based in Washington.
“I’m glad the government finally agreed to mediation,” said Tim Pigford, a North Carolina man who is lead plaintiff in the case. “This is killing folks. They need money to farm.”
The Department of Justice had resisted mediation since the case was filed in August. Its reversal came at the urging of U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who repeatedly said he would prefer a refereed resolution to a court fight.
The agreement also came two days after President Clinton met with Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, several black lawmakers and some of the plaintiffs. Clinton urged a peaceful settlement of the dispute.
“We are committed to using any legal means necessary to do this fairly and quickly,” Glickman said Friday.
Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, has launched a series of reforms to resolve past complaints and prevent new ones. At the same time, he has cautioned that legal complexities and the passage of so much time- up to two decades in some of the complaints - make quick resolution difficult.
“The judge is giving the (Agriculture) department a chance to come clear and show that there is justice in the system,” said Cecil Brewington, a fifth-generation farmer from North Carolina. “But they still want to play hard ball. They don’t want to pay.”
J.L. Chestnut, a civil rights lawyer from Selma, Ala., who earned his reputation defending Martin Luther King Jr., appeared in court as part of the farmers’ legal team. He said afterward that he still doubts the government’s willingness to resolve the dispute.
“I’m not optimistic, but I’m willing to try,” Chestnut said.
The farmers, who are concentrated in the South, allege that a network of mainly white Farmers Home Administration agents loaned them less money than white farmers, delayed the credits, held them to tougher repayment standards and foreclosed more quickly on their property.
The farmers also claim that the Agriculture Department neglected hundreds of formal complaints about the loans, especially after President Reagan dismantled the agency’s civil rights office in 1983.
Friedman, the judge, asked the two sides to give him a progress report on Jan. 26. They have accepted Michael Lewis, a black lawyer in Washington, as the mediator.
Lewis is a pioneer in a growing legal practice called alternative dispute resolution, which uses independent arbiters to try to resolve conflicts outside the courtroom. He began his practice by mediating prison disputes in the early 1970s and recently helped the Agriculture Department settle a discrimination complaint by several black farmers in Texas.
The farmers’ lawyers in the class-action suit say civil-rights officials in the agriculture and justice departments want to settle, but have been blocked by the agencies’ lawyers.
The government has argued that the clock has run out on many of the discrimination complaints under the statute of limitations, which sets time limits on pursuing legal redress. The farmers’ lawyers say such limits don’t apply because the Agriculture Department ignored the complaints for years.
Michael Sitcov, a Justice Department attorney who represented the government Friday, said: “Many of the cases are old. It takes time to find out what the facts are. We’re committed to doing that.”
George Hall, a sheriff in Greene County, Ala., said he joined the suit because the Agriculture Department gave him inadequate disaster relief after 1994 storms, refused to restructure his government loans and began foreclosure proceedings on his farm.
“A lot of farmers feel like it’s still too slow,” Hall said. “But we’ve got to recognize that the court system has to go through the procedures and it’s going to take some time.”
Phil Fraas, a class-action lawyer who is also representing the farmers, said he was happy with the mediation agreement.
“We’ve got this thing on the path where we want it to go,” Fraas said. “Whether we get justice or not, we’ll see.”