Minority Farmer Debt Relief Could Take Years to Litigate

USDA sent out letters to farmers in late May informing them they were eligible for debt relief. Then the litigation moved forward with a temporary restraining order in Wisconsin, followed by a more extensive preliminary injunction in Florida last week to block USDA from moving ahead with the debt relief.

If courts were to rule that the Biden administration must pay off debt relief for all farmers with outstanding FSA loans, the cost of the debt relief plan would increase to about $31.7 billion for nearly 145,000 borrowers.

The plaintiff in the Florida case, Scott Wynn, had challenged the provision in the American Rescue Plan that directed the debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers based on their race. Howard granted the preliminary injunction and in doing so also raised questions about USDA’s defense of the provision and how it is structured. Wynn’s attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation pitched a more aggressive schedule, citing that “many key facts in this case will be undisputed,” and should lead to an expedited discovery period. Wynn’s attorneys proposed a court schedule of motions and briefs that would wrap up on October 15.

Department of Justice lawyers representing USDA officials, citing that Wynn’s lawyers want to permanently block USDA from redressing “the lingering consequences of a long history of discriminating against socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. USDA expects it will take “several months” to develop a full record for the court. Further, the government expects to rely heavily on expert testimony, and it will take time to identify and retain those experts to review “data reaching back decades and spanning the entire country.” With that, the government seeks to push back with a list of expert reports, rebuttals and motions for summary judgement that will stretch into at least April 1, 2022. The DOJ lawyers cited one reason there is no need to further accelerate the case is that the plaintiffs already have a preliminary injunction against further action.

Howard will now have to decide on a schedule in which to move forward with the case.

Vilsack added to DTN, “At this point, we are committed to try to figure something out here to help people who have for far too long been denied the impact and effect of all of the programs at USDA throughout the entire history of the department. As a result, we now have a system that is out of balance in terms of availability of resources for socially disadvantaged producers, specifically.” The debt-relief provision “was a step designed to address that cumulative impact.”

The courts will not have to determine whether Congress in defining the class of people to receive this assistance was narrowed and tailored enough, and whether there is a compelling state interest in aiding those specific producers, Vilsack said. “I think there is. We’ll see.”

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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