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USDA accepting bias claims from women, Hispanics

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

The United States Department of Agriculture is currently accepting claims from female and Hispanic farmers who believe the agency discriminated against them during farm loan programs.

This claims process emerged after the courts rejected a class action lawsuit from the farmers and USDA agreed to a voluntary settlement process, Lynn Hayes of the Farmers Legal Action Group explained in a webinar on Tuesday.

Claimants must submit a 16-page claims package plus additional evidence, and then a third-party will review the paperwork and determine eligibility. Hayes said the process doesn’t include any court appearances nor any back-and-forth between an individual farmer and USDA. The deadline is March 25.

The timeframe for the discrimination claims is 1981-2000 (except for a brief period between 1996-1998), Hayes said.

Discrimination could take many forms, she said, including denial of a loan, discouraging someone from applying or a problem with servicing the loan. Bias allegations may apply even to people who received the initial loan they requested, Hayes said.

“You may have a discrimination claim even if you actually got the loan that you applied for, but then had problems later on when you needed servicing for the loan," she said.

The challenge for some farmers may be coming up with written documentation of the alleged discrimination—such as a complaint letter sent to USDA or to a Congressional representative—from so long ago, Hayes said. That is already a problem, she said, and as of mid-December roughly 85 percent of claims packets received had been returned as incomplete. (She cautioned that “incomplete” could refer to everything from a missing phone number to insufficient evidence of discrimination.)

But payouts for successful claims could be significant. In the basic filing categories, farmers could receive up to $50,000 plus some debt and tax relief. Farmers who are able to satisfactorily document actual dollar figures for the damages they suffered as a result of discrimination on the basis of their gender or race may receive as much as $250,000.  

Hayes said claims can be filed on behalf of a deceased, elderly or disabled farmer who experienced the discrimination.  She advised those interested in the $250,000 filing category to work with an attorney. The claims packet and more information are available at the official website: https://www.farmerclaims.gov/.

For more, visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s designated page.