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Published May 10, 2011, 09:47 AM

Native American farmers, ranchers discrimination case gets final approval

WASHINGTON — Native American farmers have until December 24 to file for claims and debt relief totaling $760 million under the settlement of the Keepseagle farmer discrimination case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture that received final court approval in April.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Native American farmers have until December 24 to file for claims and debt relief totaling $760 million under the settlement of the Keepseagle farmer discrimination case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture that received final court approval in April.

Plaintiffs in the case and President Obama have praised the settlement. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted final approval April 28 of the settlement that had been negotiated among the lawyers for the Native Americans, USDA and the Justice Department in the case known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack.

The settlement of the class-action lawsuit requires USDA to pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native Americans, to forgive up to $80 million in outstanding farm loan debt and to improve the farm loan services USDA provides to Native Americans.

Named plaintiffs Claryca Mandan, of Mandaree, N.D., and Porter Holder, of Soper, Okla., attended the hearing at which Sullivan announced his approval. The plaintiffs said they were “elated” by the court’s official ruling, according to a statement issued by the plaintiffs and their attorney, Joseph Sellers.

Moving forward

“We’ve waited three decades for the USDA to be held accountable to the Native American people. So today is a great day, indeed,” Mandan said. “The changes to USDA’s Farm Loan Program will mean that our children and grandchildren will inherit a system that is far more responsive and fair to Native Americans than the system that hampered our generation of farmers and ranchers.”

President Obama called the approval of the settlement “yet another important step forward in addressing an unfortunate chapter in USDA’s civil rights history.” Obama praised Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder for reaching the agreement, and added that approval of the settlement “will help strengthen our nation-to-nation relationship with Indian Country and reinforce the idea that all citizens have a right to be treated fairly by their government.”

Keepseagle class members will have an option to file individual claims under either Track A or Track B, Sellers said.

Track A permits eligible class members to recover up to $50,000 by providing information under oath that they are Native Americans, that they farmed or ranched (or attempted to farm or ranch) between 1981 and 1999, that they sought a loan or loan servicing from USDA during that period and that they complained when they were denied a loan or otherwise treated unfavorably.

Track B permits eligible class members to seek an award of damages up to $250,000, with the amount based upon evidence of their actual economic loss. Track B claims must include evidence that would be admissible in court to satisfy each of the same elements as Track A, and in addition must identify a similarly situated white farmer who received more favorable treatment.

Agreement provisions

Starting in July, lawyers for the class will conduct a series of meetings to assist Native American farmers and ranchers with filing claims under Track A. These meetings will occur throughout Indian Country through December.

The lawyers are encouraging class members to retain individual counsel for Track B claims, as far more is involved in preparing a successful claim. A list of attorneys willing to consider Track B claims will be provided to interested class members. Claims approved by a neutral adjudicator are expected to be paid in the summer of 2012.

Sellers also said that under the agreement, USDA will forgive up to $80 million in debt currently held by class members whose claims are approved under Track A or Track B.

When the U.S. District Court granted preliminary approval of the settlement in November 2010, that order put into effect a moratorium on foreclosures, debt accelerations and debt offsets not already referred to the U.S. Treasury Department. The moratorium applies to all Native American farmers and ranchers.

For those who file Track A or Track B claims, the moratorium will last until the claims process has concluded. After the debt relief is provided, if there are any class members with remaining debt who are delinquent on any outstanding USDA farm loans, the USDA will engage in a round of loan servicing of that debt.

The third provision of the agreement calls for the USDA to improve the delivery and responsiveness of its farm loan program to Native American farmers and ranchers, Sellers added.

One provision requires USDA to create a Native American Farmer and Rancher Council, a new federal advisory committee. The council will have 15 members — 11 will be Native Americans or represent Native American interests and four will be top USDA officials. The council will meet at least twice a year for the next five years to discuss how to make USDA’s programs more accessible for Native Americans farmers and ranchers. The council will report its recommendations directly to senior UDSA officials.

In addition to establishing the council, USDA is required to:

- Create 10 to 15 USDA regional sub-offices that will provide education and technical assistance to Native American farmers and ranchers and their advocates.

- Undertake a systematic review of farm loan policies to determine how its regulations and policies can be reformed to better assist Native American farmers and ranchers.

- Create a customer guide on applying for credit from the USDA.

- Create the Office of the Ombudsperson to address concerns of all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

- Regularly collect and report data on how well Native Americans fare under USDA’s farm loan programs.

Information: IndianFarmClass.com or 888-233-5506.

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