FROM THE ARCHIVE

Trust fund plaintiffs awarded $1.7 million

Facebook Twitter Email
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2002

The United States owes $1.7 million to a group of individual Indian beneficiaries for breaching its trust responsibilities to them, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence M. Piersol in South Dakota entered a final award in the Lebeau class action lawsuit on October 16. He based the judgment on the Department of Interior's failure to distribute money to 1,900 Sioux descendants for more than 20 years.

"The court holds that the defendant breached its trust duties by unreasonably delaying the . . distribution," he wrote in his July 29 decision that found the government had violated its fiduciary duties.

The case is one of the longest running trust disputes in government history. It began in the early 1970s, when lead plaintiff Casimir Lebeau, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, applied for his share of a $5.9 million land judgment fund.

But he was met with a number of internal delays and political pressure from tribes who also shared in the award. At one point, the tribes convinced Congress to reduce the amount of money owed to the individual Indians.

Since then, the money has gathered interest and is worth more than $14 million. The BIA is in the process of creating a final roll for eligible owners.

Based on Piersol's award, each of the 1,900 beneficiaries will receive $905.33 in addition to their share of the fund. The total damage amount for the entire class comes to $1.72 million.

The money, however, could be delayed yet again because of the Bush administration's legal maneuvering. Government attorneys already tried to stay Lebeau's award by citing the Supreme Court's pending review of tribal trust responsibilities.

In court papers filed last month, the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota also threatened to appeal the case because Piersol looked to common law trust standards to find a breach. Additionally, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan L. Holmgren argued there was no proof of "mismanagement" of the Mississippi Sioux Tribes Judgment Fund.

Lebeau, now 84, has asked the court to award attorney's fees. An October 24 filing cited a $65,852.34 legal bill.

"The government could have distributed the money 20 years ago, but failed to do so," attorney J.M. Grossenburg wrote.

If an appeal is mounted, the case would go to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Recent Court Documents:
Order on Trust Fund Award (10/16) | Additional Order (10/16) | Request for Attorneys Fees (10/24) | Support for Attorneys Fees (10/24)

Related Stories:
Study finds few Indian trust wins (10/21)
Bush threatens appeal on $483 breach of trust (10/02)
Bush officials break with tribes on trust (9/27)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Peabody battles tribe on trust (9/4)
Interior fights $483 breach of trust ruling (8/21)
Trust fund plaintiffs get ruling (8/16)
U.S. argues limits as trustee (8/9)
Legal tactics land Peabody in hot seat (7/22)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)