Red Lake Nation News - Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Historic Settlement Between Native Americans and USDA Granted Final Approval by U.S. District Court

USDA to pay $760 million in damages and debt relief to settle credit discrimination claims and improve lending to Native American farmers and ranchers

 


(WASHINGTON, D.C. – April 28, 2011) U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan

today granted final approval of the historic settlement between Native American

farmers and ranchers and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in

a case known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack. Resolving a nationwide class action

lawsuit, the Keepseagle settlement agreement 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.

“Final approval of the Keepseagle settlement marks the end of an unfortunate

chapter in our nation’s history where USDA’s credit discrimination against Native

Americans was the norm. Under this settlement, Native American farmers and

ranchers will finally receive the compensation and justice they deserve, and we will

undertake a process to ensure that the USDA treats Native Americans equally and

fairly.” said lead plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph M. Sellers, of Cohen Milstein Sellers &

Toll, PLLC.

Named plaintiffs Claryca Mandan, of Mandaree, N.D., and Porter Holder, of

Soper, Okla., who attended the fairness hearing on Thursday, were elated by the

court’s official ruling.

“We’ve waited three decades for the USDA to be held accountable to the Native

American people. So today is a great day, indeed,” said Mandan. “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.”

Added Holder: “This settlement will help thousands of Native Americans who are

still farming and ranching. The USDA has some terrific programs, but Native

Americans must have equal access to them. That’s what the law requires. We

look forward to forging a new era of partnership with the USDA so that our

communities can fully benefit from USDA’s farm loan program.”

The Keepseagle class action lawsuit was filed more than 11 years ago, on the eve

of Thanksgiving 1999. The plaintiffs alleged that since 1981, Native American

farmers and ranchers nationwide were denied the same opportunities as white

farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans and loan servicing from USDA, causing

them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses.

The settlement agreement approved by Court represents an extraordinary result

for the plaintiffs. The settlement’s $760 million in monetary relief represents about

98 percent of what the plaintiffs could possibly have won at trial, according to an

expert report prepared by a former USDA economist for the plaintiffs. All funds for

the settlement will be paid from the federal Judgment Fund, which is controlled by

the U.S. Department of Justice, and will not have to be approved by Congress.

Now that the settlement agreement has received final approval, Native American

farmers and ranchers will have until Dec. 24, 2011 to file claims for damages and

debt relief. Keepseagle class members will have an option to file individual claims

under either Track A or Track B. 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 submit 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.

Starting in July 2011, Class Counsel 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 from July through December 2011.

Class members are encouraged to retain individual counsel for Track B claims, as

far more is involved in preparing a successful Track B claim than a Track A 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.

Notification of meetings and information on how to file a claim can be found on the

IndianFarmClass.com website or by calling 1-888-233-5506.

Under the settlement agreement, the USDA also 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 currently applies to all Native American

farmers and ranchers and 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 loan debt, the USDA will engage in a round of loan

servicing of that debt.

The third provision of the settlement agreement calls for the USDA to improve the

delivery and responsiveness of its farm loan program to Native American farmers

and ranchers. One of the most important provisions is the creation of the Native

American Farmer and Rancher Council, a new federal advisory committee. The

Council will have 15 members, 11 of whom will be Native Americans or represent

Native American interests and four of whom 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, the USDA will take the following additional

steps to improve its services: 1) create 10 to 15 USDA regional sub-offices that

will provide education and technical assistance to Native American farmers and

ranchers and their advocates; 2) undertake a systematic review of its farm loan

policies to determine how its regulations and policies can be reformed to better

assist Native American farmers and ranchers; 3) create a customer guide on

applying for credit from the USDA; 4) create the Office of the Ombudsperson to

address concerns of all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers; and, 5)

regularly collect and report data on how well Native Americans fare under USDA’s

farm loan programs.

 

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