WASHINGTON (CN) - A pair of Native American groups will have no say in how $380 million left over from a discrimination lawsuit will be distributed, a federal judge has ruled.
Several class action lawsuits were filed by African American, Native American, Latino and female farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1997 and 2000. They allege years of discriminatory practices that denied them the same benefits as white farmers.
The cases all resulted in settlement agreements.
After a decade of litigation, the Native American class was awarded a $680 million settlement. Over $380 million remained after disbursements where made, the class making a motion to amend the settlement to distribute the funds to designated Cy Pres beneficiaries that provided agricultural, business assistance or advocacy services to Native American farmers.
Two Native American tribes, however, sought to intervene in the Cy Pres distribution after a 2013 status report revealing the left over money.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and its affiliated Jones Academy Foundation, sought to intervene on the basis that the amended distribution provision would adversely affect their opportunity to receive Cy Pres funds.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said the Choctaw have no legal right to intervene.
"Because they lack standing under Article III and seek to raise legal rights of others in violation of the doctrine of prudential standing, the Choctaw movants are not entitled to intervene," he said in a memorandum opinion.
The Choctaw argued that their injury was the lost opportunity to compete for the funds, but Sullivan disagreed.
"In light of the Choctaw Nation's failure to qualify as a 'non-profit organization' under the agreement ... any opportunity to compete using the joint proposal on which [they] rely is illusory," he said. "In any event, the Choctaw Movants lose no opportunity to compete under the modification."
The Great Plains claimants said they wanted the distribution agreement amended to distribute the left over money to class members who have already received awards, such as themselves. Sullivan, however, shot that idea down, saying they have already given notice that they have satisfied their claims. Sullivan also cited the group's failure to object or appeal the Cy Pres provision of the settlement agreement.
Further, they committed to filing for an award under the agreement's "Track A" provision, which granted members of the class a maximum cash award of $50,000, and acknowledged that they "forever and finally release the USDA from any and all claims and causes of action that have been or could have asserted ... in the case."
Sullivan said they were clearly given notice that unclaimed funds would be donated to one or more organizations that have provided direct assistance to Native Americans.
"Because the Great Plains claimants retain no legal claim to the fund, their desire that the agreement be modified to provide for additional payments to previously successful class members, while understandable, is not a legal interest that faces imminent invasion," Sullivan said. "Accordingly, they lack standing."
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