U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted final approval of the historic settlement between Native American farmers and ranchers and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in a case known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack.  Resolving a nationwide class action lawsuit, the Keepseagle settlement agreement requires USDA to pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native Americans, to forgive up to $80 million in outstanding farm loan debt, and to improve the farm loan services USDA provides to Native Americans.

“Final approval of the Keepseagle settlement marks the end of an unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history where USDA’s credit discrimination against Native Americans was the norm.  Under this settlement, Native American farmers and ranchers will finally receive the compensation and justice they deserve, and we will undertake a process to ensure that the USDA treats Native Americans equally and fairly.” said lead plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph M. Sellers, of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC.

Named plaintiffs Claryca Mandan, of Mandaree, N.D., and Porter Holder, of Soper, Okla., who attended the fairness hearing on Thursday, were elated by the court’s official ruling.

“We’ve waited three decades for the USDA to be held accountable to the Native American people.  So today is a great day, indeed,” said Mandan. “The changes to USDA’s Farm Loan Program will mean that our children and grandchildren will inherit a system that is far more responsive and fair to Native Americans than the system that hampered our generation of farmers and ranchers.”

Added Holder: “This settlement will help thousands of Native Americans who are still farming and ranching.  The USDA has some terrific programs, but Native Americans must have equal access to them.  That’s what the law requires.  We look forward to forging a new era of partnership with the USDA so that our communities can fully benefit from USDA’s farm loan program.”

The Keepseagle class action lawsuit was filed more than 11 years ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1999.  The plaintiffs alleged that since 1981, Native American farmers and ranchers nationwide were denied the same opportunities as white farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans and loan servicing from USDA, causing them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses.

The settlement agreement approved by Court represents an extraordinary result for the plaintiffs.  The settlement’s $760 million in monetary relief represents about 98 percent of what the plaintiffs could possibly have won at trial, according to an expert report prepared by a former USDA economist for the plaintiffs. All funds for the settlement will be paid from the federal Judgment Fund, which is controlled by the U.S. Department of Justice, and will not have to be approved by Congress.