Showing posts with label Acosta-Connif v. Educational Credit Management Corporation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Acosta-Connif v. Educational Credit Management Corporation. Show all posts

Monday, April 10, 2017

The New York Times rightly criticizes Betsy Devos for rescinding DOE directive forbidding lenders from gouging student-loan defaulters: But the Times ignores the harm caused by income-driven repayment plans

A few days ago, the New York Times criticized Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for rescinding a Department of Education directive forbidding student-loan debt collectors from gouging borrowers who default on their  student loans. Under President Obama, DOE directed the debt collectors not to assess 16 percent penalties on defaulters who quickly agreed to payment plans that would bring their loans back into good standing.

The Time is right to Criticize DeVos. As the Times pointed out in its editorial, student borrowers in the government's direct student-loan program are now defaulting at the rate of 3,000 a day. It is unjust to assess penalties against defaulters that far exceed the administrative cost of bring defaulted loans back into good standing.

But the Times rebuke went off the rails when it touted the virtues of long-term income-driven repayment plans for distressed debtors. The Times cited allegations that the lenders were not telling loan defaulters about "affordable" income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) that might cost borrowers as little as zero a month.

The Times is simply wrong to tout IDRs as "affordable." It is true that people who enter these plans may only be obligated to make token payments and perhaps no payment at all if they are unemployed or live below the poverty line.

But many people in IDRs are making monthly payments so small that the payments do not cover accruing interest. Thus their loan balances grow larger with each passing month. People in 20- and 25-year repayment plans will find they owe much  more than they borrowed when their payment obligations come to an end.

It is true that the unpaid portion of their loans will be forgiven for people who successfully complete these IDRs, but the amount of the cancelled debt is considered income by the IRS.  Under current IRS regulations, the only people who can escape that tax bill are people who are insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven.

Does that sound affordable to you?

The pitfalls of IDRs are illustrated in Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a 2016 bankruptcy court decision out of Kansas. The Murrays borrowed $77,000 in the 1990s to get undergraduate and graduate degrees, and they consolidated their debt in 1996 at 9 percent interest. Over the years, they made substantial payments. According to the bankruptcy judge, they paid $54,000 on their loans--about 70 percent of the amount borrowed.

But the Murrays' loans were put into deferment for some period of time when the couple could not afford to make their monthly payments. Meanwhile, interest accrued, and by 2015, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

ECMC argued that the Murrays should be put into an IDR. The most generous plan called for monthly payments set at 10 percent of the Murrays' adjusted gross income.  Their monthly payment would then be only $635 a month, quite manageable for a couple whose joint income was approximately $95,000 a year.

But the bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's proposal.  The judge pointed out that interest was growing at $65 a day--around $2,000 a month. Thus, the Murrays' monthly payments would amount to less than half of the monthly accruing interest. The Murrays' debt would grow to well over half a million dollars over the 20-year repayment period.

Thus, if the Murrays signed up for a 20-year IDR, one of two fates awaited them: either they would be faced with an enormous tax bill or they would be so broke their tax liability would be extinguished on the grounds of insolvency. In any event, the Murrays would be in their late 60s and in no financial shape to retire.

The Obama administration promoted IDRs and even rolled out new ones: PAYE and REPAYE. These plans give struggling debtors short-term relief, but a majority of the people who sign up for an IDR will never pay off their student loans.

Almost 6 million people are currently enrolled in one IDR or another, and most are not making payments large enough to cover accruing interest. Although  IDR enrollees are not technically in default, few will ever pay back their loans.

What is the solution for these people? There is only one solution: a discharge of their loan obligations in bankruptcy.  DOE will not admit this stark fact, and neither will the New York Times. But the bankruptcy courts are beginning to figure out that IDRs do not provide the "fresh start" that the bankruptcy process is intended to provide..  We should look for some blockbuster bankruptcy court decisions in the near future as the judges wake up to the charade of IDRs.


Editorial, The Wrong Move on Student Loans. New York Times, April 76, 2017.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

These few, these happy few, this band of brothers and sisters: Going into bankruptcy court without lawyers, a few intrepid souls obtained relief from oppressive student-loan debt

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .

Henry V
William Shakespeare

More than 20 million people have college loans they can't pay back. For most of them, their oppressive debt grows larger every day, as interest continues to accrue. It is now common for people to owe more than three times the amount of money they borrowed for postsecondary education due to interest, penalties and fees that were tacked on to their original loans.

Had these suffering souls borrowed money to purchase a pizza franchise or buy a house, they could discharge their debt in bankruptcy. Likewise, if they were financially crushed by catastrophic medical expenses or a divorce, they could wipe away their debt through the bankruptcy process.

But because they borrowed money to acquire an education, student-loan debtors cannot discharge their debt in bankruptcy unless they meet the "undue hardship" standard set forth in the Bankruptcy Code--a difficult standard to meet.

In fact, most people are so convinced that it is impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy that they don't even try.  Jason Iuliano, in a 2012 law review article, researched bankruptcy court records and found that almost a quarter of a million people with student-loan debt filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but less than 300 of them even attempted to discharge their student loans.

And indeed, discharging student loans in bankruptcy is daunting. Debtors are forced to file an adversary action--in essence, a law suit, against their student-loan creditors. 

Because people in bankruptcy generally have no money, they can't afford to hire an attorney to represent them in an adversary proceeding. In contrast. their debtors--the Department of Education, Sallie Mae, or debt collection agencies like Educational Credit Management Corporation--have lots of experienced lawyers to defend their interests.

Nevertheless, a few intrepid student-loan debtors have filed adversary actions in bankruptcy court and have been successful, and many of them proceeded without lawyers. 

Here are three examples:

Alexandra Acosta-Conniff, an Alabama school teacher and single mother of two, filed an adversary proceeding to discharge $112,000 in student-loan debt. On March 25, 2015, a bankruptcy court ruled in her favor, discharging all her student-loan obligations. Acosta-Conniff won her case without a lawyer.

George and Melanie Johnson, a married couple in their thirties with two school-age children, filed for bankruptcy in Kansas, seeking relief from $83,000 in student loans. In February 2015, a bankruptcy court ruled in their favor. Like Acosta-Conniff, the Johnsons won their case without a lawyer.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, perhaps the nation's most ruthless student-loan creditor, was a defendant in both  cases, and ECMC appealed both rulings. But the bankruptcy judges in both cases wrote persuasive and well-researched decisions,and Acosta-Conniff and the Johnsons have good prospects for prevailing on appeal.

Finally, we have Michael Abney, a single father of two, who borrowed $25,000 to pursue an undergraduate degree he never obtained, and was living on less than $1200 a month. He went to bankruptcy court without an attorney and defeated the Department of Education. Abney's case was decided in November of this year. 

These few, these happy few . . . Let us salute the courage of these brave individuals, who went to bankruptcy court without lawyers and were victorious. And let us salute the bankruptcy judges who rose to their duty to give honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start--which is the very purpose of the American bankruptcy courts. 


Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, 540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Acosta-Conniff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 12-31-448-WRS, 2015 Bankr. LEXIS 937 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. March 25, 2015).

Johnson v. Sallie Mae & Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 11-23108, Adv. No. 11-6250, 2015 Bankr. LEXIS 525 (Bankr. D. Kan. Feb. 19, 2015).