206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000), 99-5222, Pigford v. Glickman

Docket Nº:99-5222, 99-5223
Citation:206 F.3d 1212
Party Name:Timothy C. Pigford, et al.,Appellees, Leonard C. Cooper, Appellant v. Dan Glickman, Secretary, The United States Department of Agriculture, Appellee
Case Date:March 31, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 1212

206 F.3d 1212 (D.C. Cir. 2000)

Timothy C. Pigford, et al.,Appellees, Leonard C. Cooper, Appellant

v.

Dan Glickman, Secretary, The United States Department of Agriculture, Appellee

Nos. 99-5222, 99-5223

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

March 31, 2000

Argued February 28, 2000

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Appeals from the United States District Courtfor the District of Columbia(No. 97cv01978)(No. 98cv01693)

David M. Schnorrenberg argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were Richard T. Seymour, Teresa A. Ferrante, Stephon J. Bowens, Marcus Jimison, J. Michael Klise and Matthew C. Hans. Julie Nepveu and Julie L. Gantz entered appearances.

Alexander J. Pires, Jr. argued the cause for appellees Freddie Jones, et al. With him on the brief was Phillip L. Fraas.

Robert M. Loeb, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellee Dan Glickman, Secretary, The United States Department of Agriculture. With him on the brief were David W. Ogden, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Marleigh Dover, Special Counsel, and Wilma A. Lewis, U.S. Attorney.

Before: Sentelle, Rogers and Tatel, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Rogers.

Rogers, Circuit Judge:

Leonard C. Cooper appeals the district court's order approving a consent decree settling lawsuits brought by a class of approximately 20,000 African American farmers, of which Mr. Cooper is a member, against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA")1. See Pigford v.

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Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82 (D.D.C. 1999). Under the decree, the United States is likely to provide an estimated $2 billion in debt relief and monetary payments in consideration for the dismissal of the class' complaint alleging that USDA systematically discriminated against them on the basis of their race. See id. at 111. Making no claim that the farmers' individual claims cannot be fairly and justly resolved under the decree, Mr. Cooper contends instead that the benefits of the consent decree are illusory because USDA has reserved the right in paragraphs 19 and 21 to undo the decree by regulatory fiat, depriving the farmers of any judicial relief and, thus, the district court abused its discretion in approving the decree as fair, adequate, and reasonable under Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. As clarified by stipulations in the briefing and oral argument on appeal, no basis exists to conclude that USDA would promulgate such a regulation under laws in effect when the decree was approved by the district court. While paragraph 19 leaves the class exposed to potential congressional enactments nullifying or modifying the consent decree, the class would bear that risk in any event, at least so long as the decree remains executory. Additionally, Mr. Cooper's contention concerning the limitation of the district court's authority by paragraph 21 is inconsistent with the plain language of that provision. Accordingly, because Mr. Cooper's contentions are unpersuasive on their own terms, and, in light of the benefits conferred on the class by the decree taken as a whole, we find no abuse of discretion by the district court, and we affirm.

I.

The consent decree settling the class action was the product of lengthy and, at times, contentious negotiations. The background is set forth in Judge Friedman's comprehensive opinion, Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 89-92, familiarity with which is assumed, and we repeat only the details necessary for this opinion2.

USDA indirectly administers programs that provide credit and other benefits to farmers. The USDA's credit and benefit programs are federally funded, but the decisions to approve or deny applications for credit or benefits are made at the county level by a committee of three to five members elected by local farmers and ranchers. In addition to acting on credit and benefit applications, the county committee appoints a county executive to assist farmers in completing their applications and to recommend to the county committee which applications should be approved. Id. at 86. USDA has promulgated a number of regulations governing how these officials are to administer the credit and benefit programs, but the evidence before the district court shows that USDA has exercised little oversight regarding how applications historically have been processed at the county level. Id. at 8688. For years, African-American farmers, who have been significantly underrepresented on the county committees, see id. at 87, have complained that county officials have exercised their power in a racially discriminatory manner, resulting in delayed processing or denial of applications for credit and benefits by African-American farmers not experienced by white farmers who are similarly situated. Id. at 87-88. Such discriminatory treatment is prohibited by statute and by regulation. See 15 U.S.C. § 1691(a) (1994); 7 C.F.R. §§ 15.51, 15.52 (1999). In December 1996, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed a Civil Rights Action Team to investigate allegations of racial discrimination in the administration of USDA credit and benefit programs, and, in February 1997, the USDA Inspector General reported that USDA had a backlog of discrimination complaints in need of immediate attention.

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The President and the Secretary thereafter sought appropriations to carry out the recommendations to improve USDA's civil rights efforts. Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 111.

On August 28, 1997, three African-American farmers filed suit on behalf of a putative class of similarly situated AfricanAmerican farmers alleging racial discrimination in the administration of USDA programs and further harm from the allegedly surreptitious dismantling of USDA's Office of Civil Rights in 1983, which together were alleged to violate the Fifth Amendment, the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq.; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d; and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act ("ECOA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1691, prohibiting discrimination in consumer credit. Following amendments to the complaint, the district court granted class certification in October 1998. See Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 90. At that time, most of the farmers' ECOA claims were arguably barred by a two-year statute of limitations. See 15 U.S.C. § 1691e(f). Responding to petitions from class members, Congress enacted, and the President signed in November 1998, an amendment to retroactively extend the limitations period for persons who had filed administrative complaints between January 1, 1981, and July 1, 1997, for acts of discrimination occurring between January 1, 1981, and December 31, 1996.3 A second class action, Brewington v. Glickman, Civ. No. 98-1693, filed in July 1998 and making similar allegations covering a different time period, was consolidated with Pigford for purposes of settlement, and a new class was certified. See Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 90.

As the February 1999 trial date drew near, the parties' negotiations shifted from individual claims to a global settlement, id., and with the assistance of a court-appointed mediator, the parties developed and agreed to a consent decree that contemplated a two-track dispute resolution mechanism to determine whether individual class members had been the victims of discrimination and, if so, the amount of monetary relief to which they were entitled. If a class member opts for resolution under Track A, "class members with little or no documentary evidence [will receive] a virtually automatic cash payment of $50,000 and forgiveness of any debt owed to USDA," id. at 95; whereas, class members opting for Track B resolution have the opportunity to prove their claims in a one-day mini-trial before an arbitrator and, if successful, the amount of monetary damages is not capped. Id. Class members dissatisfied with the opportunity for resolution of their claims under either Track A or Track B could opt out of the class within 120 days of entry of the consent decree, and file individual lawsuits. Id. The district court is to appoint a monitor from a list of names provided by the parties "to track and report on USDA's compliance with the terms of the Consent Decree." Id. at 109.

By law, the proposed consent decree could not take effect until the district court had approved it, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e), and the district court's approval could not be granted until notice had been given to the class of the proposed settlement and a fairness hearing had been held to determine whether the "settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable and is not the product of collusion between the parties." Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 98 (quoting Thomas v. Albright, 139 F.3d 227, 231 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). The district court held a day-long hearing in which representatives of eight organizations and sixteen individuals, including Mr. Cooper, voiced their objections to the terms of the proposed consent decree. Many, including Mr. Cooper,

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objected to the absence of certain forms of prospective structural relief, notwithstanding the fact that the complaint, as amended, did not seek such injunctive relief. Id. at 110. While USDA was likely to face billion-dollar monetary liability under the decree, no changes to the county committee system were mandated, and objectors feared that no improvements would be made to the way in which the farm credit and non-credit programs are administered. See Transcript of Fairness Hearing ("Tr."), Mar. 2, 1999 at Joint Appendix (JA) 388 (Mr. Bowens); 493 (Mr. Cooper). They also maintained that insufficient information had been exchanged during the discovery period leading up to the settlement. However, at the fairness hearing, neither Mr. Cooper nor his counsel voiced the objections raised now on appeal to paragraphs 19 and 21 of the decree...

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