A group of Indian beneficiaries who waited more than 30 years
for their trust fund payments aren't entitled to additional money,
a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
In a unanimous decision, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals
agreed the Interior Department breached its trust duties by
"unreasonably" delaying the distribution of a judgment
fund to 1,900 Sioux descendants. The beneficiaries, under a 1972
act of Congress, were entitled to 25 percent of a $5.9 million trust.
But a three-judge panel noted that
Congress modified the trust fund distribution formula in 1988 --
while the plaintiffs were still waiting for their share.
As a result, the court let Interior off the hook for failing
to release the money before it was reduced.
"Congress, acting within its proper authority before any
distribution to the lineal descendants occurred, reallocated the
lineal descendants' share of the judgment fund," Judge Alvin A. Schall
wrote in the 16-page ruling.
The decision means the plaintiffs -- led by Barry LeBeau of
South Dakota -- aren't entitled to $1.9 million in damages.
That figure was based on the amount the beneficiaries would
have received had Interior fully distributed the trust fund before
Congress changed the formula in 1988.
However, the Sioux descendants are still entitled to $1.7 million in
damages based on another case involving Casimir LeBeau,
a former Bureau of Indian Affairs employee.
That amount was based on Interior's failure to make a partial
distribution in 1982.
For reasons unknown, former Interior Secretary James Watt
ignored two requests from the BIA to make the partial distribution.
That was a breach of trust, according to the final judgment in the
Casimir LeBeau case that was also applied to the Barry LeBeau case.
Barry LeBeau tried to go further by arguing that the plaintiffs
in his class action lawsuit were owed additional money
based on Interior's failure to act before Congress
changed the distribution formula.
"The cause of the loss to the class was made possible by
the failure of the Secretary to pay out the fund in 1982 and thereafter,"
LeBeau's attorney wrote in a brief to the Federal Circuit.
"But for the breach of trust, the 1998 legislation would not have occurred.
But for the breach of trust in 1982 and continuing, no corpus of money
would have been available to raid by use of influence."
The "raid" referred to political pressure exerted by three tribes -- the Spirit Lake
Nation of North Dakota, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South
Dakota and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana.
In 1988, they convinced Congress to award them an extra share of the $5.9
million judgment fund..
"Simply put, the delay in distributing the funds gave the tribes
time to lobby Congress to reallocate the funds," LeBeau's attorney wrote.
Long before the LeBeau lawsuits,
the tribes had received 75 percent of the judgment fund,
which was created to compensate for 26 million acres of stolen land.
The individual Indian beneficiaries should have been entitled to the remaining
25 percent but the 1998 law reduced their share even further.
In the Casimir LeBeau case, Judge Lawrence L. Piersol of South Dakota
ruled that the political pressure exerted by the tribes wasn't an excuse
for failing to distribute the money to the individual Indians.
The Bush administration sought to appeal but dropped the case
after losing two major trust lawsuits before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"While the court recognizes that governmental agencies are not free from
political pressure and are subject to budgetary restrictions, the BIA's lack of
diligence in preparing the roll and distributing the judgment fund because of a
lack of political pressure from any tribe violated the defendant's duties to the
lineal descendants as trustee of the fund," Piersol wrote in 2002.
The individual Indian share of the trust fund has since grown
to more than $14 million.
Barry LeBeau v. US
(January 24, 2007)
Barry LeBeau Brief
Related Court Decision:
Casimir LeBeau v. US
(October 16, 2002)
LeBeau Class Action -
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