USDA and 27 Advocacy Groups Fight Texas-Based Lawsuit Against Aid Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a large group of advocacy organizations argued against the plaintiffs’ claims and their request for a preliminary injunction in a Northern District of Texas lawsuit contesting a USDA loan forgiveness program and additional USDA programs which five farmers or ranchers alleged are discriminatory because they allow only farmers of minority groups to access aid. 

A hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction was held on Wednesday, no orders have been filed yet on the outcome of that hearing. In lawsuits in other federal courts, however, judges have granted both a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the program, which was provided through Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The lawsuits claimed that since the program is only available to “socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers” and the USDA definition of that phrase means specific minority races, that the program is discriminatory. 

On Wednesday, 27 farming advocacy organizations filed an amici curiae brief opposing the preliminary injunction, including the Rural Coalition, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Family Farm Coalition. The groups explained that they work with or represent socially disadvantaged farmers who are currently eligible for the debt relief program. 

The groups claimed that their brief “provides the needed perspectives of minority farmers, who have been subjected to longstanding discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistance and loan programs; who, as a result, were in precarious financial standing even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which as only deteriorated since; and whose continued viability as farmers will be imperiled should the Court enjoin Section 1005’s emergency debt-relief program.” 

The brief argued that the balance of harms should lead the court to not support a preliminary injunction because the minority farmers it represents and the public will be harmed if the program is stopped, but the plaintiffs are not harmed if the program continues. It also claimed that Section 1005 is needfully addressing harm done to minority farmers and is a “narrowly tailored measure” temporarily benefiting the farmers who are at greatest risk. 

On Tuesday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack filed an answer to the plaitniffs’ second amended complaint, and a motion to dismiss the lawsuit citing alleged failure to state a claim. He alleged that the farmer’s claims are too broad and “go well beyond challenging the administration of the program that they contend unlawfully excludes them” because the phrase “socially disadvantaged” is used in “a wide range of programs administered by the USDA.” The plaintiffs in this case did seek to end all of these programs, but reportedly they did not allege they were injured by the programs. 

In the answer, the defendant denied allegations that USDA programs earmarked for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” violate the Constitution. Further, Vilsack argued that the court does not have jurisdiction to oversee some of the plaintiffs’ claims. As part of his affirmative defenses, Vislac said that the plaintiffs have not exhausted their administrative remedies, they are not entitled to attorneys fees, and their “claims are improperly joined.” 

In the brief supporting the motion to dismiss, Vilsack argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to support their claims, including their challenges against USDA programs that are not part of Section 1005 and policies that they have conceded are non-existent.  Additionally, Vilsack said that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim through the Civil Rights Act, because Title VI of the act allegedly does not apply to federal agencies like the USDA. 

Vilsack is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, the advocacy organizations are represented by The Brender Law Firm and Southern Poverty Law Center. The plaintiffs are represented by Mitchell Law PLLC, America First Legal Foundation, and The Fillmore Law Firm L.L.P.