An EEOC administrative judge has dealt a blow to a class action complaint filed by a group of African American employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, finding no evidence that the department's Farm Service Agency systematically discriminated against blacks when granting promotions.

The decision, issued this week by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Administrative Judge Adria S. Zeldin, found no evidence that the agency's promotion practices have a disparate impact on blacks. The administrative judge did determine, however, that the agency had discriminated against two black managers who originated the complaint in 1997. The complaint was expanded to a class action earlier this year.

In one case, Clifford J. Herron, an African American outreach manager who holds a doctorate, was passed over for a promotion in favor of a white woman who was a high school graduate. In the other case, Zeldin found that Harold Connor was discriminated against when he was denied a promotion to a post as an FSA audits and investigations director. USDA officials said both men have since been promoted to other posts.

Lawyers for the complainants could not be reached for comment, but EEOC officials said the decision could be appealed to the commission.

The administrative judge's decision finding no evidence of broad-based discrimination was applauded by USDA officials who have been under fire in recent years to correct what they acknowledge as widespread complaints of discrimination within the agency's ranks.

"We know at USDA that we still have a long way to go, but we feel this is a positive development," said USDA spokesman Andy Solomon.

Secretary Dan Glickman has declared stamping out the discrimination problems to be one of his top priorities. Currently, USDA is facing five other class action or proposed class action complaints, alleging racial and gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Also, USDA earlier this year reached a settlement with black farmers, who said that for years they were denied USDA assistance because of their race. More than 22,000 current and former black farmers have filed claims under the settlement. So far, more than 6,000 have been approved for payments of at least $50,000 each, while more than 11,000 of the claims are awaiting processing.