U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan yesterday agreed to continue a delay in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit by Native American farmers and ranchers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to allow more time for settlement negotiations.
“At the request of the USDA, the plaintiffs agreed to request a brief additional stay of the litigation in the hope that the additional time will permit the parties to make real progress in establishing a basis for settlement,” said lead counsel Joseph Sellers, partner in Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
Sullivan extended the settlement negotiation to May 26, with a status report due on May 20.
In their motion to the court, Sellers and Department of Justice attorneys said, “The length of this stay is reasonable in light of the many considerations involved in settling a class action lawsuit of this size and scope.”
The class action, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in November 1999. The suit accuses the Agriculture department of denying thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers the same opportunity to obtain farm loans that it routinely gave to white farmers. The discrimination allegedly caused the loss of billions of dollars in credit over a 25-year period. The suit also charges the department with failure to accept and investigate many civil rights complaints filed by those farmers and ranchers.
Last December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked the plaintiffs to join the department in seeking a stay of the class action in order to focus on settlement negotiations. The district court halted the litigation for 60 days. That initial stay expired in mid-February and the parties won a second stay, which was scheduled to end April 21.
Last week, Sellers told The National Law Journal that the parties were “nowhere close” to a settlement.
“We’ve only agreed to an additional 30- day stay, as the plaintiffs want to avoid any more delay than is absolutely necessary to determine if there is a real possibility of settlement,” he said yesterday.