List brings questions of privacy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 23, 2003

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have filed a motion seeking to dismiss allegations of privacy violations in the case of Pigford v. Veneman, the class action lawsuit which involves the payment of damages to minority and disadvantaged farmers who were denied loans by the department.

The lawsuit alleges that the department discriminated against minority and disadvantaged farmers who had sought loans under various Department of Agriculture programs.

Courts had earlier issued a consent decree that an estimated $2.5 billion in damages was owed those farmers who could prove they had been denied loans due to discrimination.

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The motion filed earlier this week sought to dismiss allegations that the department had violated the privacy of those farmers who have received settlements in the case by publishing, or by releasing the information contained in a three-page, undated and unsigned document entitled &uot;THE DAMNDEST RIP-OFF ($2.5 Billion) IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.&uot;

The document consists of two paragraphs that briefly describe the Pigford litigation and certain aspects of the consent decree, which are followed by a list of the names and addresses of 167 class members who prevailed in their claims.

The class members, most of whom reside in Dallas, Wilcox and Perry counties, are represented by the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway and Campbell.

Chestnut’s firm alleges that the document violates the Privacy Act of 1974 as well as the executive order intended to enforce that act and seeks $10 million in punitive damages for &uot;intentional and willful disclosure of protected information.&uot;

In seeking to have the allegations dismissed, attorneys for the Department of Agriculture claim that the information contained in the document could just as easily have come from Chestnut’s own firm &uot;or a disaffected employee.&uot;

As for the document itself, which dismisses the entire settlement as a ripoff, Chestnut pointed out that the consent decree imposed strict requirements that must be met before any settlement is allowed.

To receive a settlement, minority farmers must show they were denied a loan that was granted to a white farmer similarly situation in the same county.