WASHINGTON –Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the settlement of a class action lawsuit filed against USDA by Native American farmers alleging discrimination by USDA. The settlement ends litigation concerning discrimination complaints from Native Americans generally covering the period 1981-1999.
"The settlement announced today will allow USDA and the Native American farmers involved in the lawsuit to move forward and focus on the future," said Attorney General Holder. "Under the process established in this agreement, Native American farmers who believe they suffered discrimination will have their claims heard. The Department of Justice is proud to partner with USDA in the agency’s effort to ensure fair and equitable treatment of its clients."
"Today’s settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination," Secretary Vilsack said. "The Obama Administration is committed to closing the chapter on an unfortunate civil rights history at USDA and working to ensure our customers and employees are treated justly and equally."
Under the settlement agreement, $680 million will be made available to eligible class members to compensate them for their discrimination claims. Two payment "tracks" are available. Under the first track, persons who meet the class definition and provide substantial evidence of discrimination to an impartial adjudicator will receive a uniform settlement of up to $50,000. The second track is for those persons who meet the class definition and believe they have stronger evidence of economic losses caused by discrimination. This track requires a higher evidentiary standard and damage awards are capped at a maximum of up to $250,000 per individual. Actual monetary awards are subject to reduction based on the amount of available funding and the number of meritorious claims.
The judgment fund maintained by the Departments of Justice and Treasury will fund any monetary awards provided under the settlement. USDA will provide up to $20 million to administer the settlement.
In addition to the monetary award, the agreement provides up to $80 million in debt forgiveness to successful claimants with outstanding USDA Farm Loan program debt. Also, a moratorium on foreclosures of most claimants’ farms and a moratorium on accelerations and administrative offsets of class members’ farm loan accounts will be put into place until after claimants have gone through the claims process or the Secretary of Agriculture has been notified that a claim has been denied.
The settlement also provides a broad range of programmatic relief for Native American farmers, including creation of a new Federal Advisory Council for Native American farmers and ranchers that will include Native American representation from around the country as well as senior USDA officials. Meanwhile, a new ombudsman position will be created to address farm program issues relating to Native American farmers and ranchers as well as all other socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The department will also offer Native American farmers enhanced technical assistance services through the establishment of a network that provides intensive instruction to recipients concerning financial, business and market planning skills and supports the deployment of tribal agriculture advocates and third party outreach and education providers.
This lawsuit, Marilyn Keepseagle et al., v. Vilsack (Civil Action No. 99-3119 (D.D.C.)), was filed on Nov. 24, 1999. The settlement will not become final until it is formally approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.