Saturday, April 1, 2017

Higher Education as a criminal enterprise: The U.S. Department of Education (or its agents) is trying to collect on a student loan debt 37 years old!

In Clusterfuck Nation, James Howard Kunstler has argued that many sectors of our economy have descended into criminal enterprises: banking, medicine and higher education in particular. And by God, he has convinced me.

Kunstler concluded his latest essay with these words: "It is getting to the point where we have to ask ourselves if we are even capable of being a serious people anymore." I am beginning to think the answer is no.

A few days ago a retired man in California contacted me through my blog site and asked for help with a student-loan problem. As I understand it, he took out a small student loan back in the 1970s and allowed it to go into default.

In 1980, the federal government or one of its agents obtained a default judgment against the guy, and he paid the judgment in full sometime thereafter.

Now, 37 years later, a government debt collector is trying to collect on the loan. You may think the debt is uncollectable.  All states have statutes of limitations for lawsuits to collect a debt. Generally, the statute of limitations on a promissory note is six years. So the guy has nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong. Congress passed the Higher Education Technical Amendments of 1991, which abolished all statutes of limitations on student loans, and some courts have ruled that the law applies retroactively. Thus, even if the statute of limitations on my correspondent's debt expired before the federal law was passed in 1991 (and I think it did), the government can still collect on it--at least according to some courts' interpretation.

Now that is fundamentally wrong and violates an ancient principle of equity known as laches. As explained in Black's Law Dictionary, "The doctrine of laches is based on the maxim that "equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights." Thus, as a matter of fundamental fairness, claimants must pursue their remedies within a reasonable time. After all, it is unfair to start collection activities on a debt long after most reasonable people would have discarded documents that would prove the debt had been paid.

In fact, I'm sure millions of student debtors who paid of their students loans do not now have documents to prove their loans were paid.  In fact, in a lawsuit decided a few years ago, a woman obtained a court order finding she had paid off her student loans, and Educational Credit Management Corporation continued its collection efforts against her in spite of that fact.

As I write this, the U.S. Department of Education's debt collectors are pursuing desperate student-loan borrowers into the bankruptcy courts and arguing to federal judges that these hapless debtors should be put in 25-year repayment plans. These people are as heartless as the mob characters in the movie Godfather II.

So yes, higher education has become a criminal enterprise, and the Department of Education is basically a racketeer, which Congress and the courts show no inclination toward trying to control.   As Mr. Kunstler put it, "It is getting to the point where we have to ask ourselves if we are even capable of being a serious people anymore."

There may be an argument that the Higher Education Technical Amendments of 1991 is unconstitutional when applied against people long after they can reasonably defend themselves. Perhaps some starving law graduate, also burdened by student loans, could do some research on the constitutionality of this pernicious law.

It's not personal. It's only business.


References

Hann v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 711 F.3d 235 (1st Cir. 2013).

James Howard Kunstler. Racket of Rackets. Clusterfuck Nation, March 31, 2017.

United States v. Hodges, 999 F.2d 341 (8th Cir. 1993).

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