The Justice Department is nearing a comprehensive class settlement with a class of Native American farmers who filed a discrimination suit against the federal government in 1999.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and DOJ attorneys met for a status conference Wednesday in Washington federal district court. A lead plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph Sellers of Washington’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said a settlement is close.

Neither side in the dispute discussed the terms of the proposed settlement in court, and Sellers declined to provide specifics about the deal-in-progress after the hearing. He said the settlement, which could impact tens of thousands of farmers, would not require congressional authorization. The suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture was filed in 1999 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

An economic expert for the plaintiffs said in court records filed in December 2009 that loan shortfalls meant Native American farmers were operating with $2.25 billion less in credit between 1981 and 2007. The expert calculated the economic loss involved in these loans to between $608 and $776 million in that same period.

In court papers filed in the case in July, the lawyers for the opposing sides — including Jenner & Block partner Paul Smith and Anurag Varma of Patton Boggs for the plaintiffs — said the parties have been “negotiating intensively” over numerous meeting and phone calls.

The attorneys said in the joint status report that “given the complexity of this nationwide class action involving both injunctive and monetary claims, the process has moved more slowly than we had hoped.”

Sellers said yesterday that Assistant Attorney General Tony West of the Civil Division has actively participated in the negotiations.

Civil Division lawyer Joshua Gardner, who works in the Federal Programs Branch, said in court that DOJ has expedited review of the settlement, which is awaiting approval by Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler.

“We’re all trying to move the ball forward,” Gardner said. He said there is a “mutual interest” in approving the settlement.

Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia set a follow-up hearing for October 19.

Mike Scarcella can be contacted at