The Role of the Court-Appointed Monitor
GAO-06-469R: Published: Mar 17, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 2006.
In 1997, three African-American farmers filed a class action civil rights lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These farmers alleged that USDA had willfully discriminated against them and other African-American farmers by denying their applications for farm loans and benefit programs, or by delaying the processing of their applications, and had failed to properly investigate and resolve their complaints of discrimination. This lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was certified by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia as a class action suit on October 9, 1998. On April 14, 1999, District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman approved and entered a consent decree settling this lawsuit. In doing so, the court noted USDA's long-standing discriminatory practices. The court stated that for decades USDA discriminated against African-American farmers by denying, delaying, or otherwise frustrating African-American farmers' applications for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs. The court also noted that USDA disbanded its Office of Civil Rights in 1983, and stopped responding to claims of discrimination. Finally, the court observed that the consent decree would not undo all that had been done to African-American farmers, but nevertheless concluded that it would be a fair, adequate, and reasonable settlement of the claims brought in this case. Based on the specific interests of our requesters, for this report we (1) determined the extent of the monitor's participation in outreach and outreach oversight for the Pigford case, and (2) identified the number of claims that the monitor in the Pigford case directed to be reexamined and the associated results.
The Pigford Monitor or attorneys from her office participated in 60 public meetings from February 2000 through December 2005 to reach out to class members, at the request of interested organizations. These meetings occurred in states where the majority of African-American farmers live, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The monitor estimated that 9,400 individuals, including claimants, potential claimants, and government officials attended these meetings. However, the number and extent of participation at these meeting was uneven among the states--for example, a total of about 2,090 individuals attended 12 such meetings in Alabama, but only about 60 individuals attended the one outreach meeting in Texas. At these meetings, the monitor explained the role of her office and the process through which class members could petition to have their cases reexamined. In addition, through the monitor's toll-free number, the monitor's office has received over 131,000 phone calls about the Pigford case. These calls have involved questions about status of payments, debt relief, tax concerns, and other issues. The monitor also established a Web site (http://pigfordmonitor.org) that makes information about the case readily available to the public. Furthermore, in the monitor's reports to the Secretary of USDA, the court, class counsel and defendant's counsel she noted that many claimants expressed concern to her office that the advertising campaign did not reach many individuals who met the class definition but had not submitted a timely claim. As of February 6, 2006, the monitor had ordered the reexamination of 2,059 initial claims decisions, and most reexaminations reversed or changed the initial decision. More specifically, African-American farmers had petitioned the monitor to direct the reexamination of 4,939 claims, and the government had requested that 730 claims decisions be reexamined. Of the 4,939 petitions from African-American farmers, as of February 6, 2006, the monitor had completed reviewing 3,631 of them and directed the arbitrator or adjudicator to reexamine 1,979 claims decisions; in 1,232 of these cases a previously denied claim was approved or the benefits awarded to the farmer were increased. The monitor observed that in most cases where she directed a reexamination, the farmer had provided her office with additional information supporting the farmer's claim of discrimination that had not been presented when the claim was initially denied. In addition, the government has petitioned the monitor to review claim decisions when it thought there were mistakes or flaws in the information provided by the claimants. As of February 6, 2006, the monitor had reviewed 605 of the 730 petitions submitted by the government for the reexamination of claims decisions and directed that 80 of them be reexamined. Of these 80, sixty-seven have been reexamined by the adjudicator or arbitrator, and in 59 of these cases a previously approved claim was denied or the benefits awarded to the claimant were reduced. Finally, as of February 6, 2006, the monitor was still reviewing petitions to reexamine initial claims decisions and the adjudicator and arbitrator were continuing to reexamine claims decisions as directed by the monitor.