Cobell v. Salazar is a class action lawsuit brought by Native American representatives against the United States government. Plaintiffs claim that the U.S. government incorrectly accounted for Indian trust assets, (land which came out of the Dawes Act.) These lands were assigned to individual Native Americans, but managed by the Department of the Interior on their behalf.
The case, which began in 1996, was previously called Cobell v. Kempthorne, Cobell v. Norton, and Cobell v. Babbitt. It may be the largest class action lawsuit against the U.S. in history. Plaintiffs contend that class members number about 500,000. Defendants claim it is closer to 250,000. Plaintiffs also have suggested U.S. government liability as high as $176 billion, while defendants give a number in the low millions, at most.
In 2008, the district court awarded the plaintiffs $455.6 million, which both sides appealed. On July 29, 2009, the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated the award and it went back to court.
On December 8, 2009, a $3.4 billion settlement was announced. It included $1.4 billion to plaintiffs for historical accounting and damage claims, $2 billion for re-purchase of lands distributed under the Dawes Act, and $60 million for Indian higher education scholarships.
Congress funded the settlement in 2010 and on December 8, 2010, President Obama signed legislation approving the Settlement and authorizing $3.4 billion in funds. On December 21, 2010, The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted preliminary approval to the Settlement.
Indian beneficiaries now have until April 20 to object or comment on the settlement, speak at a “fairness” hearing, scheduled for June 20, or opt out to file their own lawsuits. Payments could begin in October if there are no appeals.
Most beneficiaries will receive at least $1,800 but some could receive more. Some beneficiaries will only receive $800, the minimum payment.
A possible hold up may be the dispute over legal fees. Attorneys are asking for $223 million instead of the $99 million provided agreed to in the settlement. Last week two Representatives introduced legislation to cap fees at $50 million.