Print U.S. Department of Agriculture settles farming lawsuit
Written by Greg Ruland   
Wednesday, 09 November 2011 00:00

American Indian farmers and ranchers who live in the Verde Valley have until Tuesday, Dec. 27, to apply for a payment of up to $250,000, their potential reward from a discrimination lawsuit recently settled with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

American Indian farmers and ranchers who live in the Verde Valley have until Tuesday, Dec. 27, to apply for a payment of up to $250,000, their potential reward from a discrimination lawsuit recently settled with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.USDA officials meet at Camp Verde Recreation Center for three days, Tuesday through Thursday, Nov. 1 to 3, to advise people on how to make a claim. Officials will be available to provide information about the claims process starting at 9 a.m. each day, a USDA spokeswoman said.

Known as the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case, a class of plaintiffs consisting entirely of American Indians sued the federal government over its mismanagement of loans granted to Indian ranchers and farmers. The lawsuit, which American Indians pushed for more than a decade, settled by 2011, according to court documents.

Under the terms of the settlement, the USDA will pay a total of $760 million. After lawyers take their cut, two funds are created out of the payment. The first fund pays class members who submit valid claims. The second fund provides up to $80 million for forgiveness of certain debts.

Those included in the class are defined as “Native Americans.” A Native American is any person who:

  • Is a member of a tribe, band, nation or community recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians, also known as a “federally recognized tribe;”
  • Is a member of any Indian group that has been formally recognized as an Indian tribe by a state legislature or other similar organization vested with state tribal recognition authority, also known as a “state recognized tribe;”
  • Is a member of any Indian tribe or “Native group” that asked the United States government for federal recognition; or,
  • Represented himself or herself as a Native American before Nov. 24, 1999.

To qualify for a payment, the Native American must also be a rancher or farmer who:

  • Farmed or ranched or attempted to farm or ranch between Jan. 1, 1981, and Nov. 24, 1999; and
  • Sought, or attempted to seek, a farm loan from the USDA during that period; and
  • Complained about discrimination to the USDA orally or in writing on their own or through a representative, such as a tribal government, during the same time period.

Class members are represented by class counsel at no cost to the member. Class counsel are lawyers appointed by the court to look after the interests of the class members.

“While it is not necessary for you to get your own lawyer, you have the right to do so,” a USDA spokeswoman said. “However, you would have to pay for that lawyer with your own money.”

Indians have no legal obligation to participate in the class action, she said.

“However, we suggest that you examine your available options before deciding whether to participate or not. Your rights are affected even if you do nothing,” she said.

Those who chose to be excluded from the settlement are no longer a class member and will not be bound by the final outcome of the settlement no matter what might happen. Those excluded cannot file a claim or otherwise participate in the settlement.

For more information, call (888) 233-5506.