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Farm Credit East accused of age discrimination in lawsuit

A Bronxville man is accusing Farm Credit East of age discrimination after the lender declined to loan him $1.2 million to purchase and upgrade a 53-acre former vineyard property in Calverton.

Ralph Ciuffetelli, who is now 76 years old, claims he was rejected on loan requests four times by Farm Credit East, despite his having an estimated net worth of more than $12 million and despite his having operated a 23-acre farm property in Yorktown, N.Y., according to the federal lawsuit he filed July 12 in U.S. District Court.

In one denial letter, Farm Credit East stated, “We do not grant credit to any applicant on the terms and conditions you request,” and said it “is denying your loan request as there is insufficient income to service your debt, and further, you have not provided sufficient information with respect to use of funds and an acceptable business plan.”

“It’s kind of bizarre the way they do it,” said Andrew Campanelli, Mr. Ciuffetelli’s attorney. “The whole purpose of Farm Credit East, and the reason it was established by Congress, was that it enabled those engaged in farming use to get loans, because banks wouldn’t loan farmers money, because if they have a bad year with crops, they wouldn’t have the money.”

The lawsuit also claims Farm Credit East is funding some projects that are not agricultural, such as a car wash and an auto repair shop.

Farm Credit East is an entity within the Farm Credit System, which disburses funds under the Federal Farm Loan Act, and falls under the jurisdiction of the Farm Credit Administration.

Mr. Ciuffetelli is seeking $10 million in damages for age discrimination and for violation of the Freedom of Information Act. He claims that Farm Credit East is an entity within the Farm Credit System, disburses funds under the Federal Farm Loan Act and is subject to the authority of the Farm Credit Administration, which is an independent agency of the federal government.

The lawsuit names as defendants Farm Credit East, along with Patrick Wiles, a senior loan officer at its Riverhead office, and Sandra Pearson, a mortgage specialist in Long Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

At one point in the application process, Mr. Wiles asked Mr. Ciuffetelli questions such as “How old are you?” “What if you die?” and “Is the property in your name?” according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Wiles declined to comment.

Mr. Ciuffetelli became interested in buying the land in 2016, when he was 73 years old, the lawsuit says.

The estate consisted of a country home, a vineyard and a licensed winery and also had potential for other uses, such as an equestrian facility, a nursery and a hotel, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Ciuffetelli signed the contract to purchase the property for $1.2 million in February 2017, and currently lives at the Calverton site, according to the lawsuit.

The land in question, at 2822 River Road in Calverton, was previously home to Hidden Vineyard. The house sustained major water damage and was undergoing repairs, and the sellers — the Estate of Peter DiBerardi — wanted the repairs done before signing the contract to sell the property, the lawsuit says.

Mr. Ciuffetelli began exploring his options for a mortgage while the work was ongoing, the lawsuit states.

He said he has an extensive credit history and a perfect credit score.

Several banks told him they didn’t have a farm program, and that the land in question was in an agricultural district.

An agricultural district allows farm owners to receive benefits such as tax breaks in exchange for not developing the land for a certain number of years.

Mr. Ciuffetelli said he was not aware the property was in an agricultural zone and he learned that Farm Credit East was his only option.

He eventually acquired a $500,000 bridge loan from Capital One Bank, at 9.5% interest, and paid the remainder himself, while continuing to try to work with Farm Credit East to refinance the deal at a lower interest rate.

Mr. Ciuffetelli eventually hired an attorney to help him with his application. That attorney learned that other people were finding it easy to get loans from Farm Credit East, including one person who had obtained financing for a car wash and auto repair shop, “which is odd considering Farm Credit East makes loans specifically for farming,” the lawsuit says.

When the attorney, Richard Bartel, tried to obtain additional information about this applicant and others, he was told by Farm Credit East general counsel Alena Gfeller that Farm Credit East is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, a point that Mr. Ciuffetelli is challenging in the lawsuit.

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