Now that the historic $1.2 billion settlement begins to be divided amongst the black farmers involved in the high-profile discrimination class action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a judge has awarded more than $90 million in fees to their team of attorneys that includes Morgan & Morgan’s own Gregorio Francis.
Praised for their “adept negotiation” that “dramatically benefited the class,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys were awarded $90.8 million for their efforts that, according to presiding Washington D.C. United States District Judge Paul Friedman, will ensure “that a greater number of plaintiffs likely will prevail on their claims than otherwise.”
“Class counsel have undertaken the immense challenge presented by this action with the utmost professionalism and integrity, exhibiting skill, diligence, and efficiency in all aspects of their duties,” Judge Friedman told Law360.
Lawyers for the USDA attempted to minimize the fees awarded to the plaintiffs’ attorneys to 4.1 percent of the final settlement amount, arguing that the litigation was “neither long in duration nor particularly complex.” However, Judge Friedman said the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ “utmost professionalism” entitled them to the maximum possible award of 7.4 percent.
Judge Friedman also noted the “significant” out-of-pocket fees incurred by the class counsel, with Morgan & Morgan and the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin reportedly totaling more than $18 million in expenses combined.
“Absent the settlement of this case, they might never have been reimbursed for many of these costs and expenses,” Judge Friedman said in reference to the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ exemplary professional conduct, part of which was published on The Blog of Legal Times (The BLT). “In light of these considerations, the Court’s previous observation that this litigation ‘was no sure bet for plaintiffs’ lawyers’ was, if anything, an understatement.”
Approved by Judge Friedman in October, 2011, the settlement, which, by experts’ estimates should start being divided into payments among the plaintiffs in mid-July, provides much-sought after resolution to the suit that accused federal agricultural officials of denying the farmers loans and other forms of assistance based on their race.
The African American farmers involved in the class action, whose initial claims were consolidated in 2008, are those who were not included in the settlement from the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman case, which alleged they were racially discriminated against by the USDA in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1983 and 1997.
According to Mississippi Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, the lawyers involved with the suit estimate between 18,000 and 20,000 farmers, the majority of who work in Alabama and Mississippi, will be eligible to receive payments from the settlement. The maximum payment a farmer can receive, reports say, is $62,500, including $50,000 for the claim and $12,500 going toward taxes.
The allegations against the USDA came to head in the late ‘90s when class actions lawsuits were filed against the agency in 1997 and 1998, respectively. A consent decree—a voluntary understanding agreed upon by two parties in a lawsuit in exchange for a charge withdrawal or end to an ongoing litigation—was established in 1999. While setting a hard deadline for which claims could be filed, the consent decree also served as an acknowledgment by the USDA that they had partaken in discrimination against the farmers in providing farm loans, subsidies and other benefits.
Although more than 22,000 farmers filed their claims on time, more than 55,000 other eligible claimants, according to reports, failed to file by the deadline. Many farmers ultimately filed their claims and are now eligible to receive their piece of the settlement.