Judge can't reopen Keepseagle case after $380M goes unspent

Indian farmers and ranchers held a protest outside the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., last December. Photo from Association of American Indian Farmers / Facebook

A federal judge said he can't reopen the Keepseagle settlement even though Indian farmers and ranchers received only half of $680 million promised to them.

The Obama administration reached the settlement in October 2010 to address discrimination at the Department of Agriculture. But in what Judge Emmet Sullivan described as a "monumental" failure, only about 3,600 Indian farmers and ranchers received payments.

"This case was not an abstract legal dispute," Sullivan observed in a 70-page decision issued on Friday. "It was a major class-action seeking to remedy what many felt was the latest chapter in the federal government’s sordid history of mistreating Native Americans."

Despite the significance of the settlement, Sullivan said he was bound a provision that requires leftover money to be distributed to groups that assist farmers and ranchers in Indian Country. He denied a motion to authorize another round of payments, as requested by lead plaintiff Marilyn Keepsagle and her husband.

The judge also denied a motion create a new trust fund to distribute the $380 million in cy pres funds, a request of attorneys who represented the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice.

Sullivan, who heard directly from Indian ranchers and farmers at an all-day hearing in Washington, D.C., on June 29, acknowledged that his decision satisfies no one.

"Contrary to the Keepseagles’s wishes, the funds would remain entirely for charitable distribution," Sullivan wrote. "Contrary to the goals of class counsel and the government, that charitable distribution would be pursuant to the arguably inefficient procedures that were designed to handle a much smaller amount of money."

But while Sullivan said it was "unclear" why the claims process failed, he wondered why the federal government won't support a reopening of the process.

"Over half of the class’s damages would be distributed to third parties, despite the relative ease with which class members could be identified, the claims process reopened, and previously successful claimants permitted to prove that they suffered damages in excess of the compensation they have obtained," Sullivan wrote.

Reopening the process would require additional talks, Sullivan said. The Keepseagles are open to negotiations, their attorney told The National Law Journal.

The attorneys who handled the case on behalf of the plaintiffs are also open to talks, the Journal reported. The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Get the Story:
Judge Laments 'Monumental' Failure After $380M Goes Unspent in Class Action The National Law Journal 7/24)

District Court Decision:
Keepseagle v. Vilsack (July 24, 2015)

Settlement Documents:
Plaintiffs Press Release | Settlement | Notice Form A | Notice Form B
Damages Award | Loan Debt Relief | Native American Farmers and Ranchers Council | Named Plaintiffs | President Obama Statement | USDA Press Release

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