ANCHORAGE - The state Supreme Court is hearing a class-action case against Cook Inlet Region Inc. that would decide whether Native corporations can pay unequal amounts of money to their shareholders.
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CIRI provides extra payments to eligible shareholders who are 65 or older. The Anchorage-based company's elder-benefit program pays eligible elders $1,800 per year.
Some shareholders say that amounts to discrimination and filed suit four years ago.
So far, all challenges in state court to elder benefit programs at other Native corporations have failed.
"It's a been there, done that deal," Jerry Juday, an attorney for CIRI, told the court on Tuesday.
CIRI general counsel Ethan Schutt says the Native corporations have social responsibilities that other corporations don't.
"This idea that they are going to be exactly like Wells Fargo, or some other publicly traded corporation, is nonsense to begin with," he said.
Petersburg attorney Fried Triem is representing a several shareholders excluded from the elder program who claim CIRI's payments to elders is illegal discrimination.
One of the plaintiffs, Maria Coleman of Eklutna, said she has five daughters and 13 grandchildren and feels the payments are robbing her children of their share of CIRI's profits.
"If (payments) are done with the elders, it needs to be done by need," Coleman said.