The Work

December 8, 2009 1:44 PM

Kilpatrick Stockton Advises on $3.4 Billion Native American Settlement

Posted by Brian Baxter

One of the largest class actions in U.S. history finally ended Tuesday when U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, Jr., and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced they had reached an agreement to pay the plaintiffs $1.4 billion, sibling publication The Blog of Legal Times reports. A $2 billion fund will also be set up to buy Native American land.

"We are here today to right a past wrong and lay out a path for the responsible management of Indian trust assets in the twenty-first century," Salazar, a Sherman & Howard alum and former Colorado attorney general, said at a press conference at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. "Under the terms of the settlement today, the litigation will end."

Dennis Gingold, a solo practitioner in Washington, D.C., served as lead plaintiff's counsel, assisted by Keith Harper, a litigation partner who heads the Native American practice group at Kilpatrick Stockton. The firm's co-managing partner William Dorris, partners David Smith and Adam Charnes, counsel Elliott Levitas, and associate Justin Guilder also worked on the case.

Lawyers from the Justice Department's civil division and in-house lawyers at the Interior represented the government during the case. Thomas Perrelli, a former Jenner & Block partner now serving as associate attorney general under Holder, served as the lead lawyer for the government in negotiations with plaintiffs.

The dispute dates back to the Dawes Act of 1887, when Congress named the Department of the Interior trustee for 145 million acres of Indian land. But rather than benefit Native Americans, the Dawes Act and subsequent legislation allowed the government to give the best land to white settlers.

In 1996, more than 300,000 Native Americans filed suit against the Department of the Interior, accusing the agency of mismanaging Native American trust accounts and seeking $58 billion in damages.

After more than a decade of litigation, the case landed before U.S. district court judge James Robertson, who in August 2008 awarded the class $456 million in restitution--less than 1 percent of the amount they were seeking. Both the government and plaintiffs appealed. By then, Kilpatrick Stockton had already sunk more than $22 million in legal fees into the case.

The settlement depends on plaintiffs selling their trust to the government, a portion of which will go into a higher education scholarship fund for Native American students. Individual class members will receive checks of roughly $1,500.

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