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Estate of Boyland v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 15, 2019

Estate of Earnest Lee Boyland, et al., Appellants
v.
United States Department of Agriculture, et al., Appellees

          Argued October 1, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:15-cv-01112)

          Robert E. Hauberg Jr. argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellants. Paul A. Robinson Jr. entered an appearance.

          Jennifer L. Utrecht, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellees. With her on the brief was Charles W. Scarborough, Attorney.

          Stephen P. Murphy was on the brief for appellee EPIQ Class Action & Claims Solutions, Inc.

          Before: Griffith and Pillard, Circuit Judges, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.

          OPINION

          Pillard, Circuit Judge

         Plaintiffs, representing the estates of black male farmers, seek to submit claims of past discrimination in agricultural credit programs to a claims-processing framework set up to resolve Hispanic and female farmers' credit discrimination claims. In this lawsuit, they assert that the claims-processing framework itself discriminatorily excluded them. In short, they raise a discrimination claim about the handling of discrimination claims. They therefore identify two distinct discrimination claims, one nested within the other: the underlying credit discrimination claims, and the current challenge to the framework. Plaintiffs argue that the district court failed to assume the merits of their claim when it held they lacked standing to bring the current challenge. That is incorrect. Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the framework because they have no live underlying credit discrimination claims to present there.

         Plaintiffs sued the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA" or "the Department") and Epiq Class Action & Claims Solutions, Inc. ("Epiq"), the firm USDA hired to administer the framework, contending they unlawfully discriminated by affording women and Hispanic claimants exclusive access to a remedial claims framework, the very raison d'être of which was to redress USDA's sex and ethnicity discrimination against female and Hispanic farmers. Plaintiffs allege that the farmers whose estates they represent experienced discrimination in USDA agricultural credit and benefit programs-based not on sex or Hispanic ethnicity, but on their black racial identity. That claim is certainly plausible. It is well established that, during the 1980s and 1990s, USDA engaged in systemic discrimination on multiple grounds against many of the farmers its programs were supposed to serve. In fact, it was a class action lawsuit by black farmers (the "Black Farmers" suit) that first illuminated USDA's rampant credit discrimination and inspired parallel lawsuits by Native American, female, and Hispanic farmers. And USDA modeled the framework at issue here on the claims-processing system it set up in settlement of the Black Farmers' class action.

         Plaintiffs in this case never submitted claims in the Black Farmers remedial process. When they instead sought to present their claims in the parallel framework for claims of discrimination against women and/or Hispanic farmers, the claims processor turned them away. Plaintiffs contend that USDA and Epiq thereby invidiously discriminated against them based on their sex and race. They claim that USDA violated the constitutional equal protection guarantee and that Epiq violated the federal statutory prohibition against discrimination by a program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.

         In assessing standing, we assume that plaintiffs could prevail on those claims. Plaintiffs' standing nevertheless fails for want of redressability. The claims-processing framework for women and Hispanic farmers, like the parallel one for black farmers, can only make good on live claims. Thus, even assuming plaintiffs succeeded in invalidating the framework's challenged sex and ethnicity limitations, they could not benefit unless they had unexpired claims of credit discrimination to process there.

         Because plaintiffs fail to allege that they have any live claims to process in the framework they challenge, the harm they assert from being excluded is not redressable. Plaintiffs' nested claims target discrimination by USDA during the 1980s in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), which prohibits discrimination in credit transactions. 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq. ECOA's five-year statute of limitations has long since run on most claims of that vintage. Congress in 1998 legislated an important but limited exception to ECOA's time bar for farmers who had complained of discrimination to USDA between 1981 and July 1997-a period when, Congress found, the Department's internal system for addressing discrimination claims was dysfunctional. Plaintiffs do not allege they sought to press their claims to USDA before July 1997, so they are ineligible to benefit from Congress's tolling of the limitations period for farmers who did. Their decades-old claims are time barred.

         Even if we assumed that plaintiffs in fact took steps before 1997 to preserve their claims and merely neglected to so specify in their complaint, they would still be out of luck. Together with everything else they allege, that would mean- as the district court assumed-that they were members of the plaintiff class in the Black Farmers' lawsuit. Any credit discrimination claim a member of the Black Farmers plaintiff class may have had during the relevant period, whether or not actually pursued in the remedial process established under the Black Farmers' consent decree, is now precluded by that decree, or, for any member who opted out, time barred. Thus, even if the challenged framework were not limited to women and Hispanic farmers, it could do nothing to redress plaintiffs' precluded claims.

         I.

         A.

         Over the past two decades, USDA has resolved discrimination lawsuits with several different groups of farmers. These lawsuits primarily challenged discrimination in USDA's lending programs in violation of ECOA. 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq. Farmers' bottom lines fluctuate with the weather and crop prices, so "many farmers depend heavily on the credit and benefit programs of the United States Department of Agriculture to take them from one year to the next." Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I), 185 F.R.D. 82, 86 (D.D.C. 1999) (footnote omitted).[1] If a farmer's crops fail, "he may not have sufficient resources to buy seeds to plant in the following season"; if he needs a new grain harvester, "he often cannot afford to buy the harvester without an extension of credit." Id. "Because of the seasonal nature of ...


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