Black Farmers case teaches a childhood lesson

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 21, 2004

Commentary by Hank Sanders

“No good deed goes unpunished,” my mother said, “but you have to do good deeds anyway.” If I had not already learned this lesson, the Black Farmers case would surely have taught me. The truth of my mother’s saying was driven home again when I attended meetings of Black Farmers in Birmingham, Alabama.

When our law firm, Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway and Campbell, became involved in the Black Farmers case, it was a continuation of nearly 30 years of work with the Emergency Land Fund, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other organizations helping black land owners save their lands. It was a money-losing proposition, but we worked anyway. For our work, years of work, we were falsely accused of stealing Black people’s land. No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

Early on in the case, along with other attorneys, we made a critical decision that we knew would cost us huge sums of money. The time this lawsuit must be brought was two years from the date of the discrimination. The suit was filed in 1997. Therefore, only discrimination from 1995 forward could be covered. So much of the discrimination had taken place years before. To insure action by Congress to extend the time, we voluntarily gave up any right to claim any of the proceeds of the litigation as attorney fees. Instead, we agreed to be paid by the Government on an hourly basis without help. Congress extended the statute of limitation back to 1981. No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

To date, a 25 percent fee would have been more than $200 million dollars, a 10 percent fee more than $80 million dollars, a 5 percent fee more than $40 million. Even a one percent fee would have been more than $8 million. Our firm has not received even a fraction of one percent for nearly eight years of work. The entities truly making millions are the arbitrators, the Monitor’s office and the facilitator. Yet we find ourselves under attack for “making huge attorney fees off Black Farmers.” No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

When attorneys representing the Black Farmers settled this case, the best estimates projected that some four or five thousand Black Farmers would be eligible for relief. To date, more than 22,000 black farmers have become part of the class. When we look at the number of African Americans considered in one way or another, the number exceeds 100,000. Now we are being attacked for leaving out too many Black Farmers. No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

To date, well over $800 million dollars has been awarded to Black Farmers and their descendants. As far as I know, it is the largest sum ever received by any group of black people in a single lawsuit. The sum continues to grow. Now we are being attacked for “selling out Black Farmers.” No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

We traveled around the country helping Black Farmers. Members of our firm single-handedly visited 23 states and Puerto Rico. The urgency of time limits caused us to concentrate so much in this area that we failed to cultivate some other legal fields. Now we are being attacked for not letting Black Farmers know about the lawsuit. No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

To help with the Black Farmers claims, we hired additional lawyers and paralegals and associated others. At one point we were $1.7 million in debt as a direct result of helping Black Farmers. We are still deeply in debt as a result of this gigantic effort. Now we are being falsely attacked for “lining our pockets to the detriment of Black Farmers.” No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

We have fought hard to include more farmers in the class under the consent decree. We tried to get many of the 60,000 in the suit. The Government has fought us tooth and nail to limit the number of Black Farmers. They have unreasonably limited attorney fees and expenses. Yet the attacks are directed at us rather than the Government. No good deed goes unpunished, but we must do good deeds anyway.

Some say the lawsuit is a failure because the wrongdoers went unpunished. I do not know of any class action where the wrongdoers were removed from their position. However, more than $800 million dollars certainly speaks loudly. No good deed goes unpunished, but we have to do good deeds anyway.

It is painful to see thousands upon thousands of poor people paying up to $100 each to get into a lawsuit that is closed. These small sums from thousands of black people amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. We believe the only way for those left out to get relief is through additional action by Congress. It would be a good deed, and we are working to achieve that goal. If it happens, it will be a good deed, and it will not go unpunished. All of us must do good deeds anyway.

EPILOGUE – Few things are more painful than being attacked when we have not only done our best but sacrificed in the process and achieved good results. However, we have to move through the pain and keep on doing what needs to be done.