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U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman has received mixed reviews from an appeals court for his efforts to broadly extend the filing deadlines for black farmers claiming credit discrimination in a massive case against the government. Many of the farmers who entered into a class action settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1999 saw their claims jeopardized when their lawyers repeatedly missed strict deadlines for arbitration. The affected plaintiffs are among the 188 farmers who elected to pursue “Track B” of the settlement, which permits awards averaging $400,000 after fast-track arbitrations, considerably larger than the awards for other plaintiffs. More than $600 million has been paid to 12,000-plus farmers, according to the most recent court data. Earlier this year, pro bono lawyers from several of the city’s largest firms asked Friedman to extend the deadlines, noting that they had come into the case only after the original counsel for the farmers had lost control of the claims process. The judge found that the settlement’s purposes would be defeated unless the deadlines were broadly waived, and he granted the motion. The Justice Department appealed to the D.C. Circuit. Writing for a three-judge panel on June 21, D.C. Circuit Judge David Tatel agreed with Justice on a key point. He wrote that Friedman lacks the power to “interpret and enforce” the settlement to extend the time. But Tatel concluded that Friedman can instead invoke a federal rule of procedure that permits “modification” of a decree if “unforeseen obstacles” come along. The unforeseen circumstance was the failure of the plaintiffs’ original lawyers to meet the arbitration deadlines, the court found. No one anticipated this “virtual malpractice,” Tatel wrote. “To hold otherwise would sanction the farmers’ double betrayal: first by the Department [of Agriculture] … and then by their own lawyers.” The appeals court instructed Friedman to extend the deadlines in a limited, “properly tailored” way. Covington & Burling partner Anthony Herman, a lead lawyer for the farmers, says, “We are confident that on remand, Judge Friedman will modify the consent decree in a way that ensures that the remaining Track B claimants are guaranteed a fair process and at the same time complies with the D.C. Circuit’s opinion.” The plaintiffs’ original lawyer, Alexander Pires Jr., did not return calls seeking comment.

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