Court allows claim for alleged underpayment from Cobell settlement

A mural in Bonesteel, South Dakota. Photo: Jimmy Emerson

A Sioux Nation man who is serving a lengthy prison sentence will be allowed to sue the federal government over his payment from the Cobell trust fund settlement.

Sylvan Godfrey received $880 as part of the historic $3.4 billion deal but he believes he should have received $1,000. That was the amount nearly every Indian beneficiary was paid for the historical accounting portion of the settlement.

Chief Judge Susan G. Braden of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims did not rule on the merits of Godfrey's argument. But she said he is entitled to proceed with his lawsuit because the settlement was clear in terms of the historical accounting payment.

The "Cobell settlement agreement unambiguously entitles members of that class to $1,000 in compensation, $120 more than the $880 plaintiff allegedly received," Braden wrote in a 14-page decision issued on Monday.

The $3.4 billion settlement was structured into two classes. The first payment of $1,000 went out in December 2012 and was meant to resolve the historical accounting portion of the lawsuit.

Hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries received $1,000 but it's possible that Godfrey wasn't a member of the historical accounting class. According to the official settlement website, a person must have had an Individual Indian Money (IIM) account open between anytime between October 25, 1994, and September 30, 2009, and the account must have have had at least one cash transaction that wasn't later reversed.

The second payment was for members of the trust administration class. If a person didn't have an open IIM account, he or she could still have qualified by demonstrating an "interest in trust land or land in restricted status as of September 30, 2009."

The trust administration payment differed for every beneficiary because it was linked to the activities that occurred on his or her trust property. But the base payment was about $800, or close to the amount Godfrey received.

The payments resulted in at least $1,800 going to nearly every participant in the settlement.

The Department of Justice, however, did not bring up any factual issues when it sought to dismiss Godfrey's lawsuit. Instead, government attorneys characterized his complaint as one of being unhappy with the settlement.

The government, though, was able to secure the dismissal of several other claims raised by Godfrey. He claimed that his lengthy prison sentence for sexual abuse violated treaties and that his constitutional rights have been violated.

In his August 4, 2016, complaint, Godfrey had asked for $2.3 billion in damages and $12 million for false imprisonment. He filed the case on his own from his prison cell in Florida.

Godfrey was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in May 2014 for an incident that occurred at an Indian housing unit near Bonesteel, South Dakota. He was sentenced to 360 months in prison for his crime.

Godfrey challenged his conviction but lost an appeal in May 2015. He is due to be released in October 2039, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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