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Pigford v. Vilsack

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

February 6, 2015


Argued: November 20, 2014.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:97-cv-01978).

Charles W. Scarborough, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General, Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney, and Marleigh D. Dover, Attorney.

John M. Shoreman argued the cause and filed the brief for appellee Maurice McGinnis.

Before: TATEL and WILKINS, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge.


Page 510

Wilkins, Circuit Judge:

Appellee Maurice McGinnis farmed cotton and soybeans in the Mississippi River Delta near Yazoo City, Mississippi. Like millions of other small family farmers, he sought a loan through federal farm credit programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. And he alleges that, like tens of thousands of other African-American farmers, he was denied access to those programs by the Department because of his race.

McGinnis participated in a claims process established by a class action settlement agreement to resolve his and other farmers' discrimination claims. There is no question that, under this scheme, many claimants' rights were vindicated. Yet in McGinnis' case the process failed dramatically. Repeatedly, the persons tasked under the Consent Decree with processing his claim ignored or misinterpreted his clearly expressed wishes about how his claim should proceed. Finally, over a decade after McGinnis first filed his claim, he turned to the courts to vindicate his rights. Recognizing the Kafkaesque ordeal he had endured, the District Court awarded McGinnis the relief he sought: not an award on the merits of his claim, but merely the opportunity to make his case in the arbitration forum provided for under the settlement agreement. We affirm.


The underlying class action settlement in this case is not new to our Court. In 1997, four hundred and one African-American farmers from the South and Midwest brought suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (the " Department" )--now headed by Appellant Secretary Thomas Vilsack--under the Equal

Page 511

Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq., alleging that the Department discriminated against them in denying applications for credit and benefit programs. See generally Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999). The District Court certified a class for the purpose of determining the Department's liability in October 1998, Pigford v. Glickman, 182 F.R.D. 341 (D.D.C. 1998), and certified a slightly modified class for all purposes in early 1999. The class included all African-American farmers who (i) farmed between 1981 and 1996, (ii) applied to the Department for a federal farm credit or benefit program during that period and believed the Department discriminated against their application on the basis of race, and (iii) filed a discrimination complaint before mid-1997. Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. at 92.

After several months of negotiations, the parties reached a settlement of their claims and filed a proposed consent decree (the " Consent Decree" ) with the District Court, which it approved. Id. at 85-86. We upheld the settlement as " an indisputably fair and reasonable resolution of the class complaint." Pigford v. Glickman, 206 F.3d 1212, 1219, 340 U.S.App.D.C. 420 (D.C. Cir. 2000). Eventually, 21,546 claimants were accepted as class members for review under the settlement agreement. Pigford v. Veneman, 292 F.3d 918, 921, 352 U.S.App.D.C. 214 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

The Consent Decree establishes a two-track claim-resolution process to determine the validity of claims and appoints (or empowers the District Court to appoint) several third-party neutrals to administer the scheme. Depending on which track a claimant chooses, his claim is resolved by either an " adjudicator" (Track A) or an " arbitrator" (Track B). Under Track A, a claimant's allegations are reviewed under the forgiving " substantial evidence" standard. A prevailing claimant is entitled to a one-time payment of $50,000 and forgiveness of any debt he owes the USDA. J.A. 11 (Consent Decree ¶ 1( l )), 20-22 ( Id. ¶ 9). Those who select Track B must establish their claim by a preponderance of the evidence--a higher burden of proof--but may seek an unlimited amount in monetary damages if they prevail after a day-long live hearing. J.A. 23-26 (Consent Decree ¶ 10). The Consent Decree also appoints a " facilitator" to publicize the settlement, mail claim packages to claimants, receive and process completed claim packages, determine whether those who submit a claim package are class members, and transmit the claim packages of class members to the adjudicator or arbitrator for determination. See J.A. 11 (Consent Decree ¶ 1(i)) (defining " facilitator" as third-party tasked with " assign[ing] claims to adjudicators and arbitrators for final resolution" ). Finally, the Consent Decree provides for the court to select a monitor, who must, among other duties, direct the facilitator, adjudicator, or arbitrator to reexamine any claim in which it finds " clear and manifest error has occurred in the screening, adjudication, or arbitration of the claim and has resulted in . . . a fundamental miscarriage of justice." J.A. 28 (Consent Decree ¶ 12(b)(iii)).

Under Paragraph 13 of the Consent Decree, the District Court retains jurisdiction to issue orders " concerning the alleged violation of any provision." See J.A. 29 (Consent Decree ¶ 13); see also J.A. 34 (Consent Decree ΒΆ 21) (District Court retains authority to enforce the Consent Decree on a party's motion for contempt). However, the Consent Decree also includes a " finality provision" that specifies that decisions of the adjudicator and arbitrator are " final," subject to review only by the monitor, and the parties consent " to forever waive their right to seek ...

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