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DC Circuit rules on discrimination suit against Department of Agriculture

[JURIST] A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Friday reversed a lower court's grant of summary judgment [opinion, PDF] against Cheryl Steele, a former economist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) [official website] who had filed a lawsuit alleging a hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation against her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [text]. The lawsuit follows many other claims that the USDA discriminates against African Americans not only in employment situations, but also in administering aid programs. In March, several US lawmakers accused the USDA of obstructing an investigation [AP report] into patterns of discrimination after USDA officials expelled government auditors sent to evaluate the Department's practices. The DC Circuit commented on its lack of confidence in the evidence available due to "the tangled record on appeal," but was able to find genuine issues of material fact:

We do note...that at least four alleged incidents that Steele describes as retaliatory -- the denial of the Y2K award, the issuance of the lowest performance rating of her career combined with the lowest performance bonus in her branch, the denial of the special act award, and the false report to the D.C. Office of Unemployment Compensation contesting her unemployment benefits -- involve conduct that this court or the Supreme Court has already indicated can support a retaliation claim.
The passage of the new Farm Bill in June enabled the Virginia-based National Black Farmers Association to go forward with a landmark discrimination case [NBFA press release; JURIST report] against the USDA. The legislation included a provision [AP file report] that expressly permits new claims of improper discrimination in the allocation of USDA resources, including loans, disaster relief, and other resources. The new Farm Bill also reopens the class-action suit to farmers who were left out of a 1999 settlement after missing a filing deadline and thousands more who argue that the terms of the settlement were inadequate.

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