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Court OKs plan for $380M in Native American farmer lawsuit

Posted May 16

— An appeals court panel on Tuesday approved a lower court's plan for distributing $380 million left over from the U.S. government's loan discrimination settlement with American Indian farmers and ranchers six years ago.

The decision wasn't unanimous, however, with one of the three judges arguing that Congress should have had a say.

President Barack Obama's administration agreed in 2011 to pay $680 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed in 1999 by Indian farmers who said they were denied loans for decades because of government discrimination. The lead plaintiffs were George and Marilyn Keepseagle, ranchers on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

Only about half of the 10,000 expected claims came in. In April 2016, a judge approved a plan for the leftover money devised by the two sides in the lawsuit that included an additional payment of $21,275 to each claimant and about $300 million to groups that help Indians.

Two of the claimants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, arguing that the entire $380 million should be divvied up among the class members. A three-judge panel on Tuesday voted 2-1 to uphold the district court's finding that the plan was "fair, reasonable and adequate."

"We look forward to putting this money to work to support farming and ranching among America's first farmers," said Joseph Sellers, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. "Native American farmers and ranchers who have been fighting for themselves and their families for nearly a decade can finally bring this case to a close."

Circuit Judge Janice Brown disagreed with her colleagues, Judges Robert Wilkins and Harry Edwards, saying the matter "should be the decision of the people and their elected representatives." She equated the plan to "the executive branch raiding hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars out of the Treasury, putting them into a slush fund disguised as a settlement, and then doling the money out to whatever constituency the executive wants bankrolled."

William A. Sherman, attorney for the two men who appealed the plan, said Brown's dissent "reaffirms our position that the judgment fund cannot be used in the manner contemplated" and that "there are plenty of issues for appeal."

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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