Showing posts with label Alan and Catherine Murray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alan and Catherine Murray. Show all posts

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on student debt crisis: You should read it

If you believe in social justice and basic human decency, you must read Matt Taibbi's article on the student-loan crisis that appeared this month in Rolling Stone.

Writing in the tradition of great American investigative journalism, Taibbi deconstructs "the great college loan swindle" that is destroying the lives of millions. Taibbi illustrates his theme by telling the story of two swindled student debtors: Scott Nailor and Veronica Martish.

Scott Nailor, a thirty-seven year-old school teacher, has contemplated suicide because he is chained to college loans he will never pay off. Nailor borrowed $35,000 to get a degree from the University of Southern Maine, which qualified him for a job as a school teacher.

This debt, which might seem modest to some people, was barely manageable on Nailor's salary as a school teacher, which initially paid just $18,000. He and his wife consolidated their student debt, which had grown to $50,000. Then the couple declared bankruptcy, but they did not discharge their student loans.

Today, Taibbi wrote, Nailor makes monthly payments of $471 a month on student-loan debt that has grown to $100,000.  None of his payments go to paying down principle. "I will never be able to pay it off," Nailor told Taibbi. "My only escape from this is to die."

And Taibbi also tells the story of Veronica Martish, a 68-year-old veteran from the Vietnam War. In 1989, she borrowed $8,000 to take courses at Quinebaug Valley Community College. Due to family problems, Martish fell behind on her loan payments and entered a loan rehabilitation program. By this time, her $8,000 had grown to $27,000 due to fees and interest tacked on by one of the federal government's debt collectors.

Martish told Taibbi that she had paid a total of $63,000 on her $8,000 student loan, but has yet to pay off the principle. By the time she dies, Martish estimates her loan balance will have grown to $200,000. "Nothing ever comes off the loan," she explained. "It's all interest and fees."

These stories may seem incredible to you, but in fact they are all too common. In fact, the bankruptcy courts have chronicled similar experiences when student-loan debtors stagger into bankruptcy court. Remember Brenda Butler, who paid $15,000 on $14,000 in student loans? Twenty years after graduating from college, she owed $32,000--twice what she borrowed. A bankruptcy judge refused to wipe out her student loans. She should stay in a long-term repayment plan, the judge advised--a plan that will not end until 42 years after Butler graduated from college.

And how about Alan and Catherine Murray, the Kansas couple who borrowed $77,000 to pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees? They made $54,000 in loan payments--about 70 percent of the principle.  Yet 20 years after finishing their studies, their accumulated student-loan debt had ballooned to $311,000--more than four times what they borrowed.

Millions of people have seen their student loans grow exponentially due to fees and unpaid interest. When that happens, a debtor's only option is to sign up for an income-driven repayment plan (IDR) that can last from 20 to 25 years. But these plans generally set monthly payments so low that the payments don't reduce the principal on the debt.  College debtors on IDRs see their loan balances grow larger and larger with each passing month even when they faithfully make their loan payments.

This was the situation Scott Nailor found himself in. No wonder he contemplated suicide.

And it gets worse. When all those millions of people in IDRs make their last monthly payment, the remaining balance on their loans will be forgiven; but the IRS considers the forgiven amount to be taxable income.

Does anyone in Congress give a damn? I don't think so. And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family has profited from the debt-collection industry, certainly doesn't give a damn.

And so America descends into an era of shocking exploitation perpetrated by colleges, the federal government, and the debt-collection industry.

I will end this reflection by quoting a paragraph from Taibbi's searing essay:
It's a multiparty affair, what shakedown artists call a "big store scheme," like in the movie The Sting: a complex deception requiring a big cast to string the mark along every step of the way. In higher education, every party you meet, from the moment you first set foot on campus, is in on the game.
Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos: the "big store" scheme


References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, CASE NO. 14-22253, CHAPTER 7, ADV. NO. 15-6099 (Bankr. D. Kan. Dec. 8, 2016), aff'd, No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).

Matt Taibbi. (2017, October). The Great College Loan Swindle. Rolling Stone.



Saturday, October 7, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray discharged more than $200,000 in student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court and their victory was affirmed on appeal: Good news for middle-income college borrowers

In a previous essay, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties who defeated Educational Credit Management Corporation in a Kansas bankruptcy court.  ECMC appealed, and the Murrays prevailed again--a victory that has important implications for middle-income student-loan debtors.

The Murrays took out student loans in the 1990s to obtain undergraduate degrees and master's degrees. Their total indebtedness was $77,000, which they consolidated in 1996 at an interest rate of 9 percent.

Over the years, the Murrays paid $54,000 toward paying off these loans--70 percent of the amount they borrowed. But they obtained economic hardship deferments during periods of financial stress, which allowed them to skip some loan payments.  And they entered into an income-based repayment plan to lower their monthly payments to a manageable level.

Although the Murrays handled their student loans in good faith, interest on their debt continued to accrue; and they made no progress toward paying off their debt. In fact, when they filed for bankruptcy in 2014, their loan balance had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

Judge Dale L. Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, gave the Murrays a partial bankruptcy charge. It was clear, Judge Somers ruled, that the Murrays could not pay off their total student-loan indebtedness and maintain a minimal standard of living. And it was also clear that their financial situation was not likely to change. Finally, Judge Somers concluded, the Murrays had handled their student loans in good faith--an essential requirement for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

On the other hand, Judge Somers determined, the Murrays could pay off the original amount they borrowed ($77,000) and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, Judge Somers discharged the accumulated interest on the Murrays' debt, but required them to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

ECMC, the Murrays' ruthless creditor, appealed Judge Somers' decision. ECMC argued, as it always does, that the Murrays should be put in a long-term income-based repayment plan (IBR) that would last from 20 or 25 years.

But U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia, sitting as an appellate court for the appeal, affirmed Judge Somers' decision. "The court agrees with Judge Somers' findings and conclusions that [the Murrays] made a good faith effort to repay their loans," Judge Murguia wrote.

Significantly, Judge Murguia, ruling in the capacity of an appellate judge, explicitly rejected ECMC's argument that the Murrays should be placed in an IBR and that none of the Murrays' $311,000 debt should be forgiven.

"The court disagrees," Judge Murguia wrote. "Under the circumstances of this case, debtors' payments under an IBR plan are insufficient even to stop the accrual of additional interest, and such payments directly contravene the purpose of bankruptcy."  Judge Murguia noted that Judge Somers had not discharged all of the Murrays' indebtedness--only the accumulated interest. "He discharged that portion--the interest--that had become an undue hardship on debtors, denying them a fresh start."

ECMC v. Murray is an important case for two reasons: First, this is one of the few student-loan bankruptcy court decisions that have granted relief to middle-income student borrowers. The Murrays' combined income was about $95,000.

Second, the key ruling by both Judge Somers and Judge Murguia was their finding that the interest on the original debt would constitute an undue hardship for the Murrays if they were forced to pay it back. Furthermore, this would be true even if the Murrays were placed in an IBR because the monthly payments under such a repayment plan were insufficient to stop the accrual of interest.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in circumstances very similar to the Murrays. Their loan balances have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled due to accumulating interest. People in this situation will never pay off their total indebtedness. But most of these people, like the Murrays, can pay off the amount they originally borrowed if only the accumulated interest were wiped out.

Let us hope student loan debtors situated like the Murrays will learn about ECMC v. Murray and find the courage to file bankruptcy and seek a discharge of their student loans--or at least the accumulated interest.  After all, it is the accumulated interest, penalties and fees that have put millions of student borrowers in a hopeless situation. The Murray decision offers a fair and reasonable solution for these people and gives them a fresh start. A fresh start, after all, is the core reason that  bankruptcy courts exist.


References

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016), aff'd, No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).


Friday, April 21, 2017

Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Managing Crushing Levels of Student-Loan Debt: Financial Suicide

By the end of his first term in office, President Obama knew the federal student loan program was out of control. Default rates were up and millions of student borrowers had put their loans into forbearance or deferment because they were unable to make their monthly payments. Then in 2013, early in Obama's second term, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a comprehensive report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion that sketched out the magnitude of the crisis.

What to do? President Obama chose to promote income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) to give borrowers short-term relief from oppressive monthly loan payments. Obama's Department of Education rolled out two generous income-driven repayment plans:  the PAYE program, which was announced in 2012;  and REPAYE, introduced in 2016.

PAYE and REPAYE both require borrowers to make monthly payments equal to 10 percent of their adjusted gross income for 20 years: 240 payments in all.  Borrowers who make regular payments but do not pay off their loans by the end of the repayment period will have their loans forgiven, but the cancelled debt is taxable to them as income.

The higher education industry loves PAYE and REPAYE, and what's not to like? Neither plan requires colleges and universities to keep their costs in line or operate more efficiently. Students will continue borrowing more and more money  to pay exorbitant tuition prices, but  monthly payments will be manageable because they will be spread out over 20 years rather than ten.

But most people enrolling in PAYE or REPAYE are signing their own financial death warrants. By shifting to long-term, income-driven repayment plans, they become indentured servants to the government, paying a percentage of their income for the majority of their working lives.

And, as illustrated in an ongoing bankruptcy action, a lot of people who sign up for IDRs will be stone broke on the date they make their final payment.

In Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a Kansas bankruptcy judge granted a partial discharge of student-loan debt to Alan and Catherine Murray.  The Murrays borrowed $77,000 to get bachelor's and master's degrees, and paid back 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Unfortunately, the Murrays were unable to make their monthly payments for a time, and they put their loans into deferment.  Interest accrued over the years, and by the time they filed for bankruptcy, their student-loan indebtedness had grown to $311,000--four times what they borrowed.

A bankruptcy judge concluded that the Murrays had handled their loans in good faith but would never pay back their enormous debt--debt which was growing at the rate of $2,000 a month due to accruing interest.  Thus, the judge discharged the interest on their debt, requiring them only to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, the Murrays' student-loan creditor, argued unsuccessfully that the Murrays should be place in a 20- or 25-year income-driven repayment plan. The bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's demand, pointing out that the Murrays would never pay back the amount they owed and would be faced with a huge tax bill 20 years from now when their loan balance would be forgiven.

ECMC appealed, arguing that the bankruptcy judge erred when he took tax consequences into account when he granted the Murrays a partial discharge of their student loans. Tax consequences are speculative, ECMC insisted; and in event, the Murrays would almost certainly be insolvent at the end of the 20-year repayment term, and therefore they would not have to pay taxes on the forgiven loan balance.

What an astonishing admission! ECMC basically conceded that the Murrays would be broke at the end of a 20-year repayment plan, when they would be in their late sixties.

So if you are a struggling student-loan borrower who is considering an IDR, the Murray case is a cautionary tale. If you elect this option, you almost certainly will never pay off your student loans because your monthly payments won't cover accumulating interest.

Thus at the end of your repayment period--20 or 25 years from now--one of two things will happen. Either you will be faced with a huge tax bill because the amount of your forgiven loan is considered income by the IRS; or--as ECMC disarmingly admitted in the Murray case--you will be broke.


References

Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Bankr. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

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.

References

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Student Loan Crisis is WORSE than the 2008 Housing Crisis: The Return of "The Big Short"

As everyone knows, the housing market collapsed in 2008, triggering a major economic crisis in the United States. The nation descended into recession, and the national economy is still recovering from this catastrophe.

Steve Rhode and others have described a student loan "bubble," and I share these commentators' view that the federal student loan program as it functions now is unsustainable.  Approximately 42 million borrowers collectively owe $1.4 trillion in student-loan debt, and families are beginning to experience sticker shock. Enrollments are declining at the for-profit schools, and nonprofit liberal arts colleges are desperately scrambling to maintain their enrollments.

Many people may think the student-loan crisis--no matter how bad it is--is just a small tremor compared to the 2008 housing crisis, which was an earthquake.

But in fact, the student loan crisis has produced more casualties in terms of human suffering than the housing collapse ten years ago.

Earlier this week, Alan White of Credit Slip, an online news source on economic matters, commented on a housing-data report released recently by the Urban Institute. Based on the Urban Institute's data, White assessed the total damage from the subprime housing crisis. From 2007 to 2016, 6.7 million homes went into foreclosure and another 2 million homes were lost through short sales or deeds-in lieu of foreclosure. Thus the total number of homeowners who lost their homes in the subprime housing debacle is about 8.7 million. If we assume a majority of those homes were owned by married couples, then the total number of individuals who were injured in the housing crisis is about 16 million.

That's a lot of people, but the casualty list from the student loan crisis is larger. 

As the New York Times reported in 2015, about 10 million student borrowers have defaulted on their loans or have loans in delinquency. Almost 6 million debtors are now in income-driven repayment programs (IDRs), and those people are locked into repayment plans that last from 20 to 25 years. A majority of those people are making payments so low they are not servicing accruing interest, which means their student loans balances are growing larger (negatively amortizing) with each passing month.

So we're talking about 16 million people who defaulted, have delinquent loans, or who are in IDRs. And millions more have student loans in forbearance or deferment, which means they are not making payments on their loans but are not counted as defaulters. For most of those people, interest is accruing, which means their student loan balances are growing. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported a total of about 9 million people in deferment or forbearance in its 2013 report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion

All these numbers are fluid. Some delinquent student-loan borrowers will bring their loans current, and some defaulters will rehabilitate their loans. And some people will move from deferment status to some form of IDR.

But it is safe to say--indeed conservative to say--that about 20 million Americans have outstanding student loans they can't pay back. That's 4 million more people that were injured by the housing crisis. It's The Big Short all over again.

Alan and Catherine Murray, who received a partial discharge of their student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court last year, are the poster children for this calamity. They borrowed $77,000 to finance their studies, and both obtained a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. They paid back $54,000--about 70 percent of what they borrowed. 

But the Murrays experienced hard times and put their loans into deferment for a few years while interest accrued at the rate of 9 percent. They now owe $311,000! Will they ever pay that back? No, they won't.

Yes, the federal loan program is in a bubble, and the suffering has already begun. The federal government is propping up this house of cards and disguising the real default rate. Congress doesn't have the courage to address the problem, and the Trump administration appears to be clueless

We must look to the federal bankruptcy courts for relief. The Murrays obtained a partial dischage of their their loans from a Kansas bankruptcy judge last year, but their case is now on appeal.  

Stay tuned for further developments.

The Big Short


References

Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.

Editorial, "Why Student Debtors Go Unrescued." New York Times, October 7, 2015, A 26.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

Steve Rhode. The Student Bubble That Many Don't Want To See. Get Out Of Debt Guy, July 15, 2016.

Jill Schlesinger. Looking for the next bubble. Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2016.

Alan White, Foreclosure Crisis Update. Credit Slip, April 5, 2017.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Student Debtors in the Bankruptcy Courts and the Battle of Britain: "Never have the few come from the ranks of so many"

The Battle of Britain was perhaps the most thrilling episode of the Second World War. During the summer and autumn of 1940, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to bomb London, hoping to pummel the British into submission.

But Hitler failed. A handful of young pilots in the Royal Air Force clawed their way into the skies day after day and inflicted unacceptable casualties on the German Air Force. Before the year was out, Hitler gave up, and the Battle of Britain was won.

You may think it inappropriate to attach a military analogy to the ongoing battle between oppressed student borrowers and the federal government's debt collectors that is taking place now in the bankruptcy courts. But the comparison is apt.

Eight million people have defaulted on their student loans and at least 15 million more aren't paying them back.  If these people were indebted for any other reason than college loans, they would get relief from their debt in the bankruptcy courts.

But most oppressed debtors don't even try. Jason Iuliano reported that almost a quarter of a million people with student loans filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred even attempted to discharge their student loans.

But a few brave souls have filed adversary proceedings, where they've fought the U.S. Department of Education and its loan collectors--notably Educational Credit Management Corporation. Incredibly, some of them have been successful, and important appeals are now in the federal appellate courts.

Alexandra Acosta Conniff, an Alabama school teacher, acting without an attorney, defeated ECMC in 2015. ECMC appealed, but Alexandra is now represented by an eminent attorney, retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff.  I believe Alexandra will ultimately prevail.

Alan and Catherine Murray, a Kansas couple in their late 40s, beat ECMC last year, winning a partial discharge of their student loans, which had ballooned to almost a third of a million dollars. They were ably represented by George Thomas, a Kansas lawyer and ex-Marine.  Again, ECMC appealed, but I am confident Mr. Thomas and the Murrays will win through.

Overburdened student-loan debtors have been hounded and harassed by the U.S. government and its predatory agents for years, but some are now fighting back and they are beginning to find sympathetic bankruptcy judges.

Winston Church, in one of the immortal sentences in the English language, paid this tribute to the pilots of the RAF. "Never was so much owed by so many to so few."

And Boris Johnson, author of The Churchill Factor, pointed out that most of the RAF pilots came from the English working and middle classes. Few Oxford men climbed into those Hurricane fighter planes during the summer of 1940. And so Johnson added this fitting epitaph to Churchill's tribute: "Never have the few come from the ranks of so many."

So here is a message for the millions of oppressed student-loan debtors: Hang on! A few courageous individuals, aided by sturdy lawyers, are fighting for you in the federal courts. And they will ultimately win. The bankruptcy laws are going to change and become more compassionate toward honest but unfortunate individuals who were victimized by our corrupt and unjust student loan program.


"Never have the few come from the ranks of so many."


References



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

Cloud, R. C. & Fossey, R. (2014). Facing the student debt crisis: Restoring the integrity of the federal student loan program. Journal of College and University Law, 40, 101-32.

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

Iuliano, J. (2012). An Empirical Assessment of Student Loan Discharges and the Undue Hardship Standard. American Bankruptcy Law Journal, 86, 495-525.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Bankr. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).