Thursday, August 25, 2016

Student Loans, Bankruptcy, and Creditors' Lawyers: If Auschwitz Comes to the United States, Will Attorneys Handle the Paperwork?

I was a child when I learned about the Nazi concentration camps. I was a voracious reader when I was young, and I often wandered around our town library, browsing through the books. One day, I pulled a book off a shelf because I was intrigued by the title, and the pages fell open to a photo of one of the German concentration camps. It might have been Auschwitz, but I don't remember.

The photo showed dozens of naked and emaciated corpses piled in a heap, and that was all. I remember being viscerally shocked and frightened by what I saw, and I immediately realized that the dead people who appeared in the photo were the victims of human monsters.

I thought about that photo for weeks, and I finally comforted myself with the childish conviction that the death camps would never come to America--that Americans could never commit such savage acts.

Image result for auschwitz death camp
I hope I get off work in time to see my kid's soccer game

I was naive of course.  As I grew older, I realized there are plenty of Americans who will do anything they are directed to do--no matter how much pain they inflict on other human beings.

The people who operated the Nazi death camps were, after all, ordinary people.  They probably read their morning newspapers over breakfast and played with their children after work in the evenings. They labored for the Nazi death machine for a variety of mundane reasons--maybe they just needed a paycheck.

And this brings me to the lawyers who work for Educational Credit Management Corporation, perhaps the federal government's most aggressive debt collector against student-loan borrowers. ECMC's attorneys have gone into bankruptcy court time after time to oppose debt relief for distressed student-loan debtors.  In the Roth case, for example, ECMC's legal counsel opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly debtor with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month. ECMC harried Ms. Roth all the way to the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.

In a letter dated July 7, 2015, Lynn Mahaffie, a Department of Education bureaucrat, issued a letter advising creditors like ECMC not to oppose bankruptcy relief for student debtors if the cost of fighting a bankruptcy discharge did not make the effort worthwhile.

But that letter was just bullshit. The Department of Education and its loan collectors almost always oppose bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors--whether or not it is cost effective to do so.  For example, in Acosta-Conniff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, an Alabama bankruptcy judge discharged Alexandra Acosta-Conniff's student loan debt. Conniff was a single mother of two children working as a school teacher, and the court reasoned quite sensibly that Conniff would not be able to pay off her student loans.

ECMC dispatched six attorneys to appeal the bankruptcy court's decision: David Edwin Rains, Kristofer David Sodergren, Rachel Lavender Webber, Robert Allen Morgan, Margaret Hammond Manuel, and David Chip Schwartz. Six attorneys--and Conniff didn't even have a lawyer!

Not surprisingly, ECMC won its appeal.  Six lawyers against a single mother of two who can't afford an attorney--it was hardly a fair fight.

Conniff has a lawyer now, and she is appealing the district court's unfavorable decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. ECMC has a platoon of lawyers to represent it before the Eleventh Circuit, and who knows how much that costs?

But ECMC apparently doesn't care how much the appeal will cost, and the Department of Education obviously doesn't care either. Otherwise it would direct its loan collectors not to harass insolvent student-loan debtors in the bankruptcy courts.

Now I am not comparing ECMC's lawyers to Nazi death-camp workers. Being a debt collector's attorney is not intrinsically evil; and any misery inflicted on a student-loan debtor in a bankruptcy court is trivial compared to the horrors of Auschwitz. I feel sure ECMC's lawyers are all decent people.

Nevertheless, I personally could not sleep at night if I were representing ECMC in the bankruptcy courts against people like Janet Roth or Alexandra Acosta-Conniff.  I would ask myself whether I am serving the interests of justice by helping ECMC deprive honest but unfortunate college-loan borrowers of a fresh start in life.

But I don't imagine ECMC's attorneys ask themselves that question. And I doubt whether they have trouble sleeping at night. After all, the lawyers have their own student loans to pay off; and everyone has to make a living.


Note: A quick search in the Westlaw data base turned up 557 cases in which Educational Credit Management Corporation appeared as a named party.


References

Fossey, R. & Cloud, R. C. (2015). Tidings of comfort and joy: In an astonishingly compassionate decision, a bankruptcy judge discharged the student loans of an Alabama school teacher who acted as her own attorney. Teachers College Record Online, tcrecord.org. ID Number 18040. 

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 550 BR 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016).

In re Roth, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor Is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt  New York Times, January 1, 2014.






11 comments:

  1. I doubt whether they have trouble sleeping at night. After all, the lawyers have their own student loans to pay off; and everyone has to make a living.

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