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Native American Farmers Seek Class Action in Suit Against USDA

By Bill Miller, Washington Post,
Wednesday 1 November 2000; Page A13

Nearly 100 Native American farmers and ranchers crowded into a federal courtroom yesterday in hopes of turning their discrimination suit against the Agriculture Department into a class action covering at least 30,000 Indians.

The Native Americans have accused agriculture officials of discriminating against them by denying or delaying farm loans and emergency assistance, forcing many into foreclosure proceedings. The lawsuit is patterned after a similar suit filed by black farmers in which the U.S. government agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Both suits alleged that agriculture officials have treated minorities unfairly during the past 20 years and then failed to investigate discrimination complaints, according to lawyer Alexander J. Pires Jr. In recent weeks, Pires and fellow attorneys have filed similar suits against the USDA covering Hispanics and women.

Yesterday Pires asked Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant to permit the Native Americans to bring their suit as a large class action rather than pursuing claims individually. Pires said the lawsuit, filed last November, already has grown to include more than 700 individual plaintiffs who share common complaints about mistreatment. Many were in court, traveling from Montana, Oklahoma and other states to attend the proceedings and stage a protest rally outside USDA headquarters.

There is a farming crisis, a tragedy in Indian country, said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, representing the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. When the judge makes his decision, it's make-or-break for many Indian families.

Justice Department lawyer Neil Koslowe maintained that each claim should be tried separately, not as a class. Each individual's claim is different, he said.

Koslowe said that unlike the case filed by the black farmers, matters involving Native Americans also involve dealings with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an arm of the Interior Department, as well as rules under numerous treaties for various tribes.

Bryant challenged Koslowe's argument, saying that the finish line for everyone involved is the same--a decision by an Agriculture Department official. The judge did not say when he will decide whether to certify the case as a class action.

The case involving the black farmers generated what could become the biggest civil rights settlement in U.S. history. The government has paid $50,000 each to more than 8,300 claimants, for a total of more than $417 million. An additional 3,163 claims have been approved and are awaiting payment, representing $158 million. All told, Pires said he expected more than $1 billion to be paid by the end of the process.

USDA officials said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has taken many steps to improve the department's treatment of minorities. He restored the USDA's Office of Civil Rights, which was abolished during the Reagan administration, reduced a backlog of discrimination complaints and brought in outside investigators, officials said.

USDA spokeswoman Mary Beth Schultheis declined to comment on the Indians' lawsuit, saying it was up to the courts to decide those issues. But overall, she said, Glickman has no higher priority than improving USDA's record on civil rights and ensuring that all of our employees and customers are treated with fairness, dignity and respect.