WASHINGTON -- The Native American discrimination case filed in 1997 against the Agriculture Department on behalf of Marilyn and George Keepseagle of Fort Yates, N.D., and Native American farmers nationwide appears to be near settlement, lawyers for the Justice Department and the plaintiffs told a federal District Court judge on Oct. 14.
The class-action suit, now known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, contends that the Agriculture Department discriminated against Native Americans in their applications for USDA's Farm Service Agency farm loans and loan servicing while white farmers received loans and better service. At a status hearing on the case, Joshua Gardner, a Justice Department lawyer, told U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Emmet Sullivan that the government and the lawyers for the plaintiffs had reached agreement and that the case has been sent to Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler for review. Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Sullivan that he also thinks final approval for the agreement is near.
Three plaintiffs in the case -- Marilyn Keepseagle and Claryca Mandan of North Dakota and Porter Holder of Oklahoma -- were present at the hearing. Keepseagle and her husband, George, are members of the Sioux Tribe on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and residents of Fort Yates Claryca Mandan and her husband are members of the Hidatsa Tribe located on the Fort Berthold Reservation and are residents of Mandaree, N.D. Porter Holder, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a resident of Soper, Okla.
Mandan said afterward that they "were really hopeful that we could home with a celebration." Sellers said he hopes the agreement will be signed soon and added that the plaintiffs would return for the hearing. He noted that Tony West, the assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division, had participated in at least a dozen meetings that led to the agreement
Gardner said an "expedited" review is planned but that the agreement is 50 pages long and must be reviewed thoroughly and suggested that Sullivan allow the Justice Department to contact the court to schedule another hearing "when and if we have a signed agreement." But Sellers encouraged Sullivan to schedule another status hearing, and Sullivan set it for Oct. 19. Sellers said that it is important to reach an agreement as soon as possible because he plans to use publications that are published only a few times a year to inform Native Americans of their right to file a claim. Sullivan agreed that informing potential claimants of their right to file is important and added that he would use the court's website to try to reach potential claimants.
"They have been waiting years for justice," Sullivan said.
Neither government nor plaintiffs' lawyers would discuss the amount of money in the case, but Sellers said that the settlement includes both "economic recovery and programmatic relief." Sellers said he thinks there will be "tens of thousands" of claimants, but noted that the number is difficult to predict because USDA did not keep track of applications until 1999. Sellers noted that that the settlement includes an "elaborate process" for claimants to come forward even if USDA does not have the paperwork. Sellers said the settlement is national and that Native American farmers nationwide who think they experienced discrimination will be able to file applications for relief.
Sellers also noted that payment will be made through the Justice Department's Judgment Fund and will not require a congressional appropriation like the one that is pending to settle the black farmer case known as Pigford II. Suits against the government usually are settled through the Judgment Fund, but Congress specifically said in the 2008 farm bill that all but $100 million in the Pigford II case must be appropriated.