By MICHAEL DOYLE
August 05, 2005
The 93-year-old Oakdale, Calif., resident wants satisfaction from the federal government. Still. She's owed money, she says, because Nez Perce Indians stole her father's supplies in the Montana Territory more than 125 years ago. She has piles of evidence and plenty of passion; but that, as she's learned, isn't always enough.
"I don't drive," Dotson said. "I don't have a computer. I don't see very well. I'm sure they just expect me to die."
A retired typing and shorthand teacher with an active mind, Dotson has been battling for years. The gist of her claim is that the Indians stole $654.50 worth of her father's equipment. For that, she says, the federal government must pay.
In theory, that could mean a lot.
In court filings, she suggested the government pay up to 6 percent interest on the original claim going back to 1891. That adds up to $502,086.21. In just the three years since Dotson first told her story to the Sacramento Bee, the total would have increased by about $80,000.
In reality, such sums are entirely ephemeral. Despite her best efforts, Dotson does not even have a claim pending upon which interest can accumulate. At this point, there's serious question whether she ever will.
So, just maybe, this becomes all about the principle.
"I was never after money," Dotson said. "I'm just trying to right a wrong."
With its Old West details, Dotson's case can sound unique if not altogether quaint. Her father's own initial bid for compensation was called an "Indian depredation claim." His claim included the loss of "one new pair of boots, never worn ... one new California saddle, made at Knight's Landing, California" and a spotted horse described as "perfectly sound and gentle." A federal court seemed to wash its hands of the matter way back in 1906.
But Kate Dotson's claim can be seen in another way, too. Hers is a case study - not just in frustration, but in the myriad political and judicial avenues through which Americans seek recompense.
Dotson's father, Joseph M.V. Cochran, contended for years that several Indians stole his gear in the Yellowstone Valley in September 1877. The local Indian agent, a Mr. H.J. Armstrong, subsequently characterized Cochran's claim in 1882 as "just and reasonable." Documents compiled by Dotson show that Cochran's claim was submitted to Congress, and then transferred to federal court - where, for reasons that Dotson considers suspicious, it died.
Essentially, Dotson believes her father's claim was mixed up with another and erroneously dismissed.
Over the past year, Dotson sought to revive the case through the same court, the often-underestimated U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Little-known outside lawyer circles, the court of claims is nonetheless where people go when they think the government owes them money.
Last year, claims totaling $10,701,519,000 were filed with the court, according to the court's annual report. This was three times the amount claimed in 2000. It can be a generous court. Last year, it ordered the government to pay an eye-opening $585 million in judgments.
It can also be a stern court, as Dotson discovered last December when a judge dismissed her case outright. Unable to find an attorney, Dotson had been representing herself, and her case collapsed within months after she missed important filing deadlines. "She provided no excuse or explanation whatsoever," U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Nancy Firestone wrote. "(She) mentioned her failing eyesight, but provided no clue as to how this common feature of the aging process actually interfered with her ability to file (papers), particularly when she has managed to file so many other pleadings."
Even if Dotson had been able to meet the filing deadlines, moreover, she would have been a distinct underdog. A six-year statute of limitations expired long ago.
Dotson now plans to seek legislative help, but that may be elusive. The traditional vehicle is a so-called private bill, which targets assistance for an individual. Last year, Congress approved only six private bills.
"I don't know what's going on in Washington," Dotson said, but "I'm not finished."
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