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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Garcia v. Vilsack: A Policy and Legal Analysis of a USDA Discrimination Case

Jody Feder
Legislative Attorney

Tadlock Cowan
Analyst in Natural Resources and Rural Development

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long been accused of unlawfully discriminating against minority and female farmers in the management of its various programs, particularly in its Farm Service Agency loan programs. While USDA has taken concrete steps to address these allegations of discrimination, the results of these efforts have been criticized by some. Meanwhile, some minority and female farmers who have alleged discrimination by USDA have filed various lawsuits under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Pigford v. Glickman, filed on behalf of African-American farmers, is probably the most widely known. 

In October 2000, a group of Hispanic farmers filed a similar lawsuit against USDA. The case, Garcia v. Vilsack, involves allegations that USDA unlawfully discriminated against all similarly situated Hispanic farmers with respect to credit transactions and disaster benefits in violation of the ECOA, which prohibits, among other things, race, color, and national origin discrimination against credit applicants. The suit further claims that USDA violated the ECOA and the APA by systematically failing to investigate complaints of discrimination, as required by USDA regulations. Because the Garcia case has been tied up in litigation for nine years, there has been no decision on the merits of certain claims, nor has any compensation been paid to any of the plaintiffs. During the lengthy course of litigation, however, there have been numerous rulings on procedural and substantive issues that are discussed in detail in this report. 

There are several possible options for Congress to consider if it wishes to respond to the Garcia dispute. On the one hand, Congress could choose not to intervene in the Garcia case, leaving the ECOA as the standing legislative remedy. On the other hand, Congress could create a specific fund to aid farmers who are deemed to have been victims of USDA. Such a response would be similar to other compensation programs established by Congress to assist victims of certain specific circumstances (e.g., negligence, terrorism, and "acts of God"). Congress might also choose to adopt the model used in the consent decree in the Pigford case, which defined eligible claimants and established a system of notice, claims submission, consideration, and review. Although Congress was not involved in the creation of the compensation system established under the consent decree, Congress did make an additional $100 million available in the 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246) to settle claims of class participants who did not receive a decision on the merits of their claims against USDA. Congress could also choose to have the Garcia case considered by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims as a non-binding congressional reference case

Date of Report: August 2, 2010
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R40988
Price: $29.95

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