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Published February 08, 2011, 10:18 AM

Who is eligible for settlement?

BISMARCK, N.D. — Today’s column will be about a historic legal settlement with the U.S. government that could benefit tens of thousands of American Indian farmers and ranchers nationwide, including many from the Agweek readership area.

By: Derrick Braaten, Special to Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — Today’s column will be about a historic legal settlement with the U.S. government that could benefit tens of thousands of American Indian farmers and ranchers nationwide, including many from the Agweek readership area.

In October, American Indian farmers and ranchers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the settlement of a class-action lawsuit — known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack — that was filed in 1999 and challenged discrimination in the USDA’s farm loan program dating back to 1981. There is a significant North Dakota connection to this case: Six of the lead plaintiffs and one of the lawyers — myself — are North Dakotans.

The Keepseagle settlement provides that USDA will undertake major reforms that, going forward, substantially will improve its farm loan program for American Indian farmers and ranchers. It also will provide up to $680 million in damages to thousands of class members and forgive up to $80 million of debt that American Indians owe USDA. Each class member can obtain up to $50,000 by submitting a claim that provides basic information about their class membership and discrimination they experienced, or up to $250,000 by submitting a claim that satisfies a more difficult burden of proof. For class members who obtain damages, USDA will forgive all of their outstanding farm loan debt to USDA, subject to the $80 million cap.

If you satisfy the following three requirements, you may be a Keepseagle class member and may be eligible to receive damages and debt forgiveness under the Keepseagle settlement:

n You farmed or ranched or attempted to farm or ranch between Jan. 1, 1981 and Nov. 24, 1999.

n You sought, or attempted to seek, a farm loan from USDA during that period.

n You complained about discrimination to USDA orally or in writing either on your own or through a representative — such as a tribal government — during the same time period.

The Keepseagle claims process may begin as early as July and will last for six months. To fully understand your rights, I strongly encourage you to promptly seek more information about the settlement. The best resource is the class-action website: www.indianfarmclass.com.

The site is the official Keepeagle settlement website. It contains detailed information about the settlement agreement and the claims process and a number of the most frequently asked questions and answers. It is easy to navigate and is updated as needed. It also has a lot of information on the programmatic changes that will improve access for Native American farmers and ranchers.

Also, 888-233-5506 is a toll-free number to ask questions about the settlement. This call will link you to people who can answer your questions. Use this number if you don’t have Internet access.

I urge anyone who thinks that they may be a class member to provide his or her name and address to the website administrators by e-mail or by telephone so as to get notices of meetings in your area and a package of information about the case.

In conclusion, I sincerely would like to complement the staff and leadership of USDA — especially Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — for their enormous efforts in resolving this complex case that arose from conduct long preceding this administration. USDA now is making great efforts to be responsive to the needs of Native American farmers and ranchers. The future of Native American agriculture will be brighter because of these USDA efforts. Thank you.

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