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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Huge Incentives Denied in Landmark Settlement

WASHINGTON (CN) - The lead plaintiffs in the $3.4 billion Indian trust Fund settlement Cobell v. Salazar should not recoup $10 million in incentive rewards, a federal judge ruled.

The class representatives in the landmark settlement petitioned the court in 2011 for $10.5 million in incentive awards, expenses and costs, including reimbursements for litigation-support services that third-party organizations provided.

They moved to consider after an initial denial but found them selves unsuccessful again Thursday.

"The entire premise of the plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration is that the plaintiffs 'may not have been sufficiently clear that [Elouise] Cobell and, in certain cases, the other named plaintiffs are personally liable for much of' the expenses the Class Representatives sought to recover in their incentive-award petition," Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan explained. "There are two flaws regarding this premise that doom the motion for reconsideration. First and foremost, the plaintiffs were not simply 'unclear;' to the contrary, they never raised this argument before the court issued its ruling, although they had the opportunity to do so both during the briefing of the incentive-award petition and during the presentation of oral arguments at the fairness hearing. For this reason alone the court will deny the motion."

A member of the Blackfeet Tribe, Cobell made headlines in 1996 with her federal class action that accused the United States of stealing money from trusts set up as part of the 1887 Dawes Act.

The law was supposed to set up trusts to pay royalties to Native Americans for use of their lands, though little money exchanged hands.

After a 13-year legal battle, the federal government agreed to settle the claims with $3.4 billion, money representing the oil, gas, mineral and other royalties from more than 50 million acres of tribal lands.

Though they estimated that the tribes were actually owed $47 billion, Cobell and the other plaintiffs accepted the settlement to help aging tribal members who had fought for the money for more than a decade.

The settlement was challenged in 2010 by descendants of slaves who were owned by the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. They called the settlement racially discriminatory, with the United States paying off descendants of treasonous Indian slave owners who took the South's side in the Civil War instead of paying the descendants of the Indians' slaves.

Cobell died in 2011 at 65.

Since the settlement, attorneys and beneficiaries have been disputing fees and awards.

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