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In a "historic" move, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has settled a class action suit brought over loan discrimination against Native America farmers. As a part of the settlement, the agency has agreed to pay $680 million. When the suit was filed eleven years ago, plaintiffs initially sought $500 million.
According to NPR, the 1999 suit claimed that the USDA denied loans to Native American farmers in favor of white farmers from 1981-1999. As a result, many Native American farmers and ranchers lost their land.
According to the USDA, the agreement announced today will include the $680 million set aside to compensate eligible class members for the loan discrimination. There will be two systems or "tracks" of payments set up for providing compensation. The first track will include all parties who are eligible under the class definition and who can bring "substantial evidence of discrimination." These parties will receive a settlement of up to $50,000. The second track is for class members who have "stronger evidence of economic losses" due to discrimination. These parties must meet a higher standard of evidence, but the damage awards can go as high as $250,000 per individual. The awards may be subject to the amount of money available due to the number of class members who come forward with successful claims.
Up to $80 million in debt forgiveness and a moratorium on foreclosures are also part of the settlement terms, according to the USDA.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who called the settlement "historic" afer reviewing it, shook hands with all the parties after hearing the deal was reached. It took months of negotiations to hammer out the final settlement terms.
The Native American farmers' class action is just one proceeding against the USDA. Women and Hispanic farmers have also brought claims of loan discrimination against the agency. African-American farmers, who have already settled a similar suit, have been slow to recieve funds. Congressional approval for the funding is required.
"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," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.