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Judge Approves Black Farmers Settlement, Memphis Group Plans Appeal

Commercial Appeal | , Bartholomew Sullivan | 11/14/2011, 2:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has agreed to a settlement involving a class of at least 40,000 black farmers who claim they were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and who missed the deadline for an earlier settlement.

U.S. Dist. Judge Paul L. Friedman certified a class of plaintiffs aggregated in 23 separate complaints, including one made by the Memphis-based Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Inc., and its president, Thomas Burrell.

Burrell testified against the proposed settlement in a "fairness" hearing on Sept. 1, arguing that potential claimants should be able to access the much more liberal benefits of the earlier, 1999 settlement known as Pigford I. More than $1 billion has been paid out to more than 22,000 claimants in the first settlement.

Burrell said this morning that he plans to appeal Friedman's ruling on due process and equal protection grounds. He maintains that a 1998 law signed by President Bill Clinton holds open the door to claims the previous settlement labeled too late and that prospective claimants aren't limited to the cause of action Congress created for late filers in 2008 or to the $1.15 billion Congress appropriated in 2010, which he said is inadequate.

Congress re-opened the courts for claims of racial discrimination when it became clear that many black farmers had missed the earlier deadline. The USDA agreed to settle the second round of claims with an apparatus similar to the 1999 settlement in which two "tracks" are available to farmers.