The lawyers representing a class of Native American farmers and ranchers say they are confident the claims process that is part of a $760 million settlement will not have the same problems that plagued a similar suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the earlier suit, where a class of African American farmers sued the government over alleged discrimination in federal lending programs, thousands of plaintiffs missed out on compensation because claims were submitted after deadline. The Obama administration is seeking congressional approval for $1.15 billion to compensate black farmers who were excluded from the settlement in a case called Pigford I.
Last week, Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington’s federal trial court asked the attorneys in the Native American farmer discrimination case Keepseagle v. Vilsack to address how the proposed settlement avoids the Pigford issues.
On Monday, Justice attorneys and the lawyers for the plaintiffs filed a joint submission to try to alleviate Sullivan’s concerns. Click here for a copy.
The lawyers in Keepseagle, including Joseph Sellers of Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and Jenner & Block partner Paul Smith, said in the court papers that the claims process is not adversarial—unlike the one in Pigford. In Keepseagle, the attorneys said, the claims decisions are meant to be final with no right of appeal. The plaintiffs’ lawyers describe the Keepseagle process as “simpler” than the one used in Pigford.
In Pigford, the government paid claims with no limit on the total amount payable. The attorneys in the Native American discrimination suit said the settlement establishes a $50 million cap on total claims for class members who opt for a particular track. Under that scheme, which is more rigorous than a separate track, individual awards are capped at $250,000.
Also, the plan to notify potential claimants in Keepseagle differs from the plan used in Pigford.
The Keepseagle plan calls for spending more than $2 million on media advertisements to spread the word about the settlement—more than double the amount spent in Pigford. The plan calls for Internet advertising and publication in media that target Native Americans, farmers and ranchers.
A hearing in the Keepseagle case is scheduled for Friday afternoon, where the plaintiffs’ attorneys will make their pitch to Sullivan to approve the deal.