(Editor's note: As of Thursday, June 10, a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on President Joe Biden's loan forgiveness program for socially disadvantaged producers. The move came in response to additional litigation filed against the administration by a group of white farmers in the Midwest.)
A sixth-generation Wyoming rancher is suing the Biden administration and the USDA for racial discrimination over the American Rescue Plan Act’s loan forgiveness program because she does not qualify as “socially disadvantaged.”
Leisl Carpenter—a 29-year-old rancher from Laramie, represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) and the Southeastern Legal Foundation—filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, seeking to be treated equally without regards to race. The lawsuit contends the program violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause under the Fifth Amendment.
“The blatant discrimination in the American Rescue Plan Act, Section 1005, is ridiculous,” said Carpenter in a statement. “The government needs to bring an end to this horrendous practice of racial discrimination immediately and start treating Americans as individuals based on character and individual qualities, not based on the color of their skin.”
In March, Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) to provide economic relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Included in the package was $4 billion to forgive loans for “socially disadvantaged” ranchers and farmers.
Section 1005 in the ARPA provides funding and authorization for USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to pay up to 120 percent of loan outstanding balances for loans of “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. The Food, Agriculture Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 defines “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers as “someone who is a member of a socially disadvantaged group, which is further defined as a group whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities.” The USDA interprets “socially disadvantaged group” to include racial classifications.
The USDA announced in May it expected loan forgiveness payments to begin sometime in June.
“For much of the history of the USDA, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have faced discrimination—sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies—that have prevented them from achieving as much as their counterparts who do not face these documented acts of discrimination,” the USDA said in a statement.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in the statement the USDA is using a set of tools provided in the ARPA to “increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs.”
Carpenter’s 2,400-acre Flying Heart Ranch in Wyoming’s Big Laramie Valley is a 500-head operation passed down through a long line of working women. Her maternal grandmother’s family originally homesteaded on the land in 1894. The ranch is the sole source of the family’s income and to avoid foreclosure and save the ranch, Carpenter decided to take out an FSA loan of $250,000 when she was 20 years old.
Carpenter said she inherited a mound of debt from her grandparents. In addition, the pandemic added to the ranch’s financial difficulties, when previously the ranch experienced drought and a fire burning leased land.
“Last year with COVID, it literally took the bottom out of our market,” Carpenter said. “We had no idea if our cattle, our hay or anything was going to be worth anything. It was utterly terrifying. I was a very new mom and had no idea if my son was going to have a meal because the market was so volatile.”
When President Joe Biden signed the ARPA bill, Carpenter hoped the loan forgiveness program was “just the lifeline” her family needed. However, despite receiving an FSA loan eligible for loan forgiveness under Section 1005 of ARPA, the lawsuit states, “because Plaintiff is white, she is ineligible for the loan forgiveness...as administered by Defendants.”
“Like a lot of farmers and ranchers, our client has struggled to keep her family ranch afloat through all the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, only to learn that she is ineligible to even apply for Biden’s loan forgiveness program solely due to her race,” said MSLF Associate General Counsel William E. Trachman. “Instead of being rescued by Biden’s plan, she’s been excluded and discriminated against for no other reason than the color of her skin.”
The lawsuit by Carpenter follows suits filed by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who filed a lawsuit in April to repeal ARPA’s racial classifications and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty on behalf of a dozen farmers and ranchers in nine primarily Midwestern states.
MSLF has filed a second lawsuit in the Western District of Tennessee on behalf of Robert Holman, a fourth-generation Union City, TN, farmer. Holman farms with his father, where they have 2,200 combined acres.
“It’s clear that ranchers and farmers serve a vital national interest,” Trachman said. “However, when the government decides to provide loan forgiveness to farmers and ranchers due to their critical role in putting food on America’s tables, it must offer it to all farmers and ranchers, regardless of their skin color.”
The government has 60 days to respond to Carpenter’s complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor