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Things just keep getting worse for Alexander Pires Jr. in the fallout over the settlement of black farmers’ litigation against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years after Pires organized the civil rights class action in 1997, the case hit pay dirt: a historic settlement that will benefit more than 13,000 black farmers, who blame discriminatory USDA lending practices for hurting their businesses. Farmers can settle for $50,000 tax free — or gamble on a one-day minitrial before an arbitrator for a shot at a much larger settlement. So far, USDA has paid out more than $629 million to 12,597 farmers. Other lawyers had tried bringing a similar action, but could not get class certification. After Pires won certification, he established two rules: He would not accept contingency fees, and any lawyer who wanted to join the suit could. After the settlement in 1999, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman of Washington, D.C., awarded Pires and his firm, D.C.’s Conlon, Frantz, Phelan & Pires, $14.9 million in fees to divvy up among the seven other firms involved in the suit. Pires’ headaches began soon after that. His team missed so many deadlines in the minitrials that it “bordered on legal malpractice,” Friedman later ruled. To force Pires back on track, Friedman threatened him with a series of daily fines escalating up to $50,000 for each missed deadline. Friedman also called in Washington’s pro bono cavalry. Now, the small firms serving as Pires’ co-counsel are mad at him. Not only do they feel excluded from negotiating the consent decree, they feel that Pires’ good intentions — setting tight deadlines to force USDA to cut checks sooner rather than later — guaranteed failure, because they did not have the resources to manage big caseloads in a hurry. “We expected 5,000 to 6,000 clients,” says Pires’ co-counsel J.L. Chestnut Jr., a civil rights lawyer in Selma, Ala. “We ended up with 30,000. Al had no idea how much help we would need.” Says Jesse Kearney of Fayetteville, Ark.’s Cross, Kearney & McKissic, “He did not seem to care about representing me as he did himself.” On June 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with Friedman’s rebuke of Pires and his team, ruling that because of their errors the deadlines could be extended. As the court put it, the ruling restored the farmers to the position they would have been in but for the lawyers’ “dismal performance.” A rift became apparent, then, on July 15, when 15 farmers filed pro se motions to vacate the consent decree. And one of the six firms teaming up with Pires joined the revolt, filing notice of its withdrawal. What’s next? Enforcement of the consent decree continues. Lawyers have two more years to dole out money in the remaining cases. Friedman could still fine Pires, who is moving forward with suits on behalf of women, Hispanic and American Indian farmers. This time, firms like Washington, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White have joined the action. And then there is Pires’ reputation as an enterprising class action lawyer to consider. “The plaintiffs in a class don’t approve you; judges do,” says friend Kenneth Anderson, who hired Pires at the U.S. Department of Justice to work on the government’s antitrust suit to break up AT&T Corp. and is now special counsel at Howrey Simon. “Any future class is bound to bring up the Friedman and [D.C. Circuit] opinions.” When pressed for details of what went wrong, Pires reverts to tactics he may have learned as a college boxer: When getting hit, embrace your opponent. “Of course people are going to hate me. I’m a white guy who represented 40,000 black farmers,” he says. “I’ve taken a beating. So what? Black people can see money and that’s how we count in America. You get the check, you win.” If all else fails, Pires pulls out a letter from D.C. elder statesman Jacob Stein of Stein, Mitchell & Mezines, who wrote: “[The settlement] is something that very few lawyers ever claim within a career. It is a stand-alone achievement.” History will be the judge of that.

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