Showing posts with label Educational Credit Management Corporation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Educational Credit Management Corporation. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Discharging Student Loans in Bankruptcy: A Field Guide For People Who Have Nothing To Lose

Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. How often have you heard that said? But that bromide is not true. Student loans are being discharged--or at least partly discharged--in the bankruptcy courts every year.

So if you are a distressed student borrower who will never pay back your student loans, why not attempt to discharge your college loans through bankruptcy? What have you got to lose?

You say you don't have money to pay a lawyer to represent you in bankruptcy court? Then represent yourself. Again--what have you got to lose?

This essay is a field guide for struggling debtors who are thinking about filing for bankruptcy to discharge their student loans.  This is a difficult process, and not everyone will be successful. In fact, much depends upon drawing a sympathetic bankruptcy judge. But you will not know whether your college debt is dischargeable through bankruptcy unless you make the effort. So let's get started.

I. The standard for discharging student loans in bankruptcy--the "undue hardship" rule.

Section 523(a)(8) of the Bankruptcy Code states that a student loan cannot be discharged in bankruptcy unless the debtor can show that paying the loan would pose an "undue hardship" on the debtor and his or her dependents.

Congress did not define undue hardship when it adopted this provision, so it has been left to the courts to define it. Most federal circuits have adopted the Brunner test, named for a 1987 federal court decision. The Brunner test contains three parts:


(1) that the debtor cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a "minimal" standard of living for herself and her dependents if forced to repay the loans; 

(2) that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans; and 

(3) that the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.

Although most bankruptcy courts and federal appellate courts utilize the Brunner test when deciding student-loan bankruptcy cases,  there is a remarkable variations among the courts about how the Brunner test is interpreted, with some courts interpreting it more favorably for debtors than others.

II. Filing an adversary complaint

Filing for bankruptcy is a relatively straightforward process--particularly for people who have no assets. Many lawyers will walk you through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for a flat fee.


But discharging your federal student loans requires you to file an adversary action--a separate lawsuit--against your student loan creditors, which may be the U.S. Department of Education, a student loan guaranty agency, or one of the government's approved debt collectors. And if you have private student loans you will need to sue your private creditor as well.

Drafting a complaint for your adversary action is not difficult; you can find forms on the web or in published bankruptcy guides.

III. Gather your evidence before you filed your adversary complaint

In my view, you should gather all your documentary evidence before you file your adversary complaint. That evidence should include:
  • all the records you have of payments you made, 
  • correspondence with your creditor, 
  • documents supporting efforts you made to find employment, 
  • evidence of health problems, disability status, and any other documents that support your claim that paying off your student loans would be an undue hardship.
In addition, if you negotiated with your creditor about entering into a long-term income-based repayment plan, gather the documents that show what efforts you made to explore repayment options.

If relevant, you should also gather evidence showing the  job market for your profession is bad. People who attended law school, for example, should provide evidence of the bad job market for newly graduated lawyers. If you failed the bar exam or another pertinent licensing exam, you should gather evidence establishing that fact.

If you attended a for-profit school that has been found guilty of fraud or misrepresentation, you should obtain documents to educate the bankruptcy judge about your school's misbehavior.

Why is it important to gather your evidence before you file your adversary complaint? Two reasons:

First, one of the first things your creditor will do after you file your lawsuit is send you discovery requests: 1) interrogatories (questions) about your financial status and your expenses,
2) requests for  production of your documents, and
3) requests for admissions (more about requests for admissions later.)

Having your documents prepared in advance will enable you to respond to your creditor's requests for documents in a timely manner and will subtly communicate that you are prepared to have your case go to trial.

Secondly, assembling your documents early will help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of your case before you file your adversary complaint. For example, if you are disabled or have medical problems, evidence about your health status will be helpful in establishing undue hardship.

On the other hand, if you made few or no payments on your student loans over the years, that is a negative fact for you because the creditor will argue that you did not manage your loans in good faith. Courts have discharged student loans in several cases in which the student debtor made no voluntary loan payments, but you will want to be able to argue you that you meet the good faith test in spite of your spotty payment history.

IV. Know the case law about student loans and bankruptcy in your jurisdiction.

It is also important that you know how courts have ruled in student-loan cases in your jurisdiction. If you live within the boundaries of the Ninth Circuit, you will want to be familiar with the Roth decision, Hedlund, Scott and Nyes. If you live in the Tenth Circuit, you will want to know about the Polleys decision.  If you are in the Seventh Circuit, the Krieger decision is important to you.

V. Be psychologically prepared for a long court battle.

Published court decisions show that the Department of Education and the student loan guaranty agencies are sometimes willing to fight student debtors in the courts for a long time. In the Hedlund case, for example, involving a law graduate who failed to pass the bar exam, the creditor fought Mr. Hedlund in the federal courts for ten years.

Why do the student-loan creditors drag out litigation with bankrupt student borrowers? Two reasons: First, the student loan guaranty agencies are reimbursed by the federal government for their attorneys fees, so they have little incentive to stop litigating. And of course, the Department of Education has free government attorneys to represent its interests.

Secondly, by filing appeals and driving up litigation costs, the Department of Education and the student loan guaranty agencies know they are demoralizing student debtors, making it more likely they will abandon their lawsuits. And of course, by imposing heavy financial and psychological costs on people who file adversary actions, the Department of Education knows that it is discouraging distressed debtors from even trying to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.

VI. Be appropriately suspicious of any document a creditor's attorney asks you to sign.

Once you file your lawsuit, be aware of two potential dangers. First, the Department of Education or one its debt collectors will probably send you a "Request for Admissions." Do not ignore that document. If you fail to respond to a Request for Admissions, the statement you are asked to admit is deemed admitted.  It is very important to remember that.

Second, it is improper for a party to ask an opposing party to admit a principle of law. For example, it would be improper for a Request for Admission to ask you to admit that it would not be an undue hardship for you to repay your student loans.

Obviously, you should answer all interrogatories and requests for admissions truthfully, but do not admit to propositions that you are unclear about or which you do not understand. If you do not know the answer to a question, it is permissible to state that you do not know.

Similarly, don't sign a stipulations of facts that a creditors' attorneys asks you to sign unless you are very clear that signing a stipulation won't prejudice your case in court. And remember--when a government attorney waves a stipulation in your face and asks you to sign it, the attorney is not making that request to help you. The lawyer drafted that stipulation to help the government.

VII. What do you do if you win your adversary action and the creditor appeals?

 In several instances, student-loan debtors have gone to court without an attorney and won their case. It has been my observation that some bankruptcy judges are sympathetic to people who are overwhelmed by student loan debt, and these judges have written remarkably thorough decisions ruling in the debtor's favor.

But sometimes the creditor appeals, forcing the debtor to figure out how to file a strong appellate brief. For example, Alexandra Acosta-Conniff won a student-loan discharge in an Alabama bankruptcy court, and George and Melanie Johnson won their case before a Kansas bankruptcy judge. In both cases, the debtors were opposed by Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC); and in both cases, ECMC appealed.

In my view, debtors need an attorney to represent them in appellate proceedings, so debtors who win their cases at the bankruptcy-court level without lawyers need to find an appellate lawyer to help them if their bankruptcy court victory is appealed.

If it is absolutely impossible to hire an appellate attorney and you are forced to file an appellate brief without an attorney, then you should at least try to find appellate briefs filed in other cases to help you file your own appellate brief.  You can contact me, and I will be happy to help you find pleadings that will be helpful to you.

VIII. A few words about private student loans


Thanks to the deceptively named "Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005," private student loans are as difficult to discharge in bankruptcy as federal student loans. For both types of loans, the "undue hardship" rule applies.

To protect their own interests, the banks and other private student-loan defenders (Sallie Mae, etc.) usually require student borrowers to find a co-signer to guarantee the loan. Generally, the co-signer is a parent or other relative.

So remember, even if you discharge a private student loan in bankruptcy, your co-signer is still liable to pay back the loan. And the co-signer, like you, must meet the "undue hardship" test if he or she tries to cancel the debt in bankruptcy.

Conclusion

The student loan crisis grows worse with each passing month. As the New York Times noted recently, 1.1 million student borrowers defaulted on their student loans in 2016--that is an average of 3,000 defaults a day!

Bankruptcy judges read the newspapers, and many of them have children or relatives who are overwhelmed by their student loans. I think the judges are beginning to be more sympathetic to "honest but unfortunate" student-loan debtors who acted in good faith and simply cannot pay back their student loans.

Some student borrowers have a better case for a bankruptcy discharge than others, but hundreds of thousands of people have a decent shot at getting their student loans cancelled through bankruptcy if they just make the effort.

Filing an adversary complaint in a bankruptcy court takes courage, fortitude and hard work--particularly in gathering evidence necessary to show a bankruptcy judge that repaying your student loans truly constitutes an undue hardship. And not everyone who seeks relief from student loans through bankruptcy will be successful

Nevertheless, if you are a student debtor with crushing student loans, you should consider filing for bankruptcy. If, after careful thought, you determine that you have nothing to lose by filing, then you should file an adversary complaint and fight for relief from oppressive student debt. Others have been successful, and you too might be victorious in a federal bankruptcy court.

References

The Wrong Move on Student LoansNew York Times, April 6, 2017.





Thursday, May 11, 2017

ECMC n v. Acosta-Conniff: Just because you made some bad decisions doesn't disqualify you from discharging your student loans in bankruptcy

Alexandra Acosta-Conniff (Conniff), a single mother of two and an Alabama school teacher, took out student loans to further her education; and she eventually obtained a Ph.D. degree from Auburn University.  She made some payments on her loans, but she put them in deferment for several years due to her low income and her family situation.

Interest accrued on the loans while they were in deferment, and by the time Conniff filed for bankruptcy, her loan balance had grown to $112,000.  In 2013, Conniff filed an adversary action against Educational Credit Management Corporation, seeking to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy.

At the trial on her adversary complaint, Conniff (who argued her case without a lawyer), presented evidence that her expenses slightly exceeded her income and that she was only able to make ends meet by getting financial aid from her parents.
ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief, arguing Conniff should be put into an income-driven repayment plan. ECMC also maintained that Conniff had discretionary income she could devote to making loan payments because she made voluntary payments of $220 a month to her retirement plan.

Judge William Sawyer, an Alabama bankruptcy judge, applied the three-part Brunner test to Conniff's circumstances and concluded that she passed all three parts. First, she was unable to pay off her loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her children. Second, additional circumstances existed showing that it was unlikely that her financial circumstances would improve during the loan-repayment period. Finally, Judge Sawyer was convinced that Conniff had handled her student loans in good faith.

In deciding Conniff's case, Sawyer, wrote that he was familiar with teachers' pay levels in Alabama, and he considered it unlikely that Conniff's pay as a teacher would increase significantly in the years to come. The judge estimated that Conniff's working life would extend no more than 15 years and that she would be unable to repay her student loans in that time period. Thus, Judge Sawyer discharged Conniff's loans in their entirety.

ECMC appealed to a U.S. District Court, arguing that Judge Sawyer had misapplied the Brunner test. Judge W. Keith Watkins, who heard the appeal, sided with ECMC and specifically found that Conniff failed Brunner's second prong because she had not demonstrated additional circumstances showing that it was unlikely she could repay her student loans in the future.

Essentially, Judge Watkins expressed disapproval of Conniff's decision to obtain a Ph.D. "[Judge Watkins] opined that Conniff has only herself to blame for incurring student debt in the pursuit of multiple degrees that she should have known would not lead to an increase in income sufficient to cover the debt."

Adopting a censorious tone, Judge Watkins said this:
Although [Conniff] is not satisfied with the pay the advanced degrees ultimately have yielded, Conniff chose to earn four degrees, funded primarily by student loans, in her preferred career path of education with a general understanding of the benefits she wold obtain from the degrees versus the costs. She admits specifically that she decided to obtain another student loan to earn her pinnacle Ph.D. in special education and agreed to repay it, knowing how the cost of the Ph.D. compared with the increase in pay it would provide. Conniff finds herself in circumstance largely of her own informed decision-making, which although not dispositive is a consideration.
Conniff, who by now had obtained excellent legal counsel in the person of retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff, appealed the district court's decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. There, she was more fortunate.  The Eleventh Circuit panel reversed Judge Watkin's opinion and remanded Conniff's case for further consideration.

The Eleventh Circuit specifically disapproved of Judge Watkin's conclusion that Conniff failed the second prong of the Brunner test because she "ha[d] only herself to blame" for her student-loan predicament. In the Eleventh Circuit panel's view, this was the wrong way to interpret Brunner's second prong. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit instructed:

[T]he second prong [of Brunner] is a forward-looking test that focuses on whether a debtor has shown her inability to repay the loan during a significant portion of the repayment period. It does not look backward to assess blame for the student debtor's financial circumstances. Thus, even if the court concludes that a debtor has acted recklessly or foolishly in accumulating her student debt, that does not play into an analysis under the second prong. Nor should it be considered on remand in analysis of that prong. [emphasis supplied] 
The Eleventh Circuit decision (which was not published) is not an outright win for Conniff. She must return to the district court to enable Judge Watkins to reconsider her situation under the Brunner test in accordance with the Eleventh Circuit's directive. But it is a good decision overall, not only for Conniff, but for many other student-loan debtors in bankruptcy.

Let's face it. Millions of distressed student debtors are indebted up to their eyeballs by student loans at least partly because they made some questionable decisions. Perhaps they obtained their degrees from expensive for-profit colleges instead of enrolling in a more reasonably priced public institution. Maybe they chose professions that will not lead to high-paying jobs. Perhaps they changed majors midway through their studies and incurred additional costs.

But the Eleventh Circuit of Appeals has ruled that judges should not examine a debtor's past when determining future ability to repay student loans. The second prong of the Brunner test "is a forward-looking test" and "does not look backward to assess blame." 

Thus, although the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC did not rule decisively in favor of cancelling Conniff's debt, she can take comfort from the fact that the lower court will consider her circumstances without blaming her for going to graduate school.




 References

Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation], 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015), reversed, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016), reversed and remanded, No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017).

ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Acosta Conniff], No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017) (unpublished opinion).

ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation] v. Acosta-Conniff, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016), reversed and remanded, No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017).
Richard Fossey & Robert C. Cloud. Tidings of Comfort and Joy: In an Astonishingly Compassionate Decision, a a Bankruptcy Judge Discharge the Student Loans of an Alabama School Teacher Who Acted as Her Own Attorney. Teachers College Record, July 20, 2015. ID Number: 18040.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senate progressives should press for hearings on Educational Credit Management Corporation and the student loan crisis

Senator Elizabeth Warren has had a brilliant career. She grew up in Oklahoma, went to law school, and wound up on the Harvard Law School faculty. Now she is in the U.S. Senate, and pundits say she may run for President in 2020. Impressive!

Somewhere along the way, Senator Warren represented that she had Cherokee blood, although she never provided a shred of evidence to support that assertion. Her claim may have been a factor in getting that cushy Harvard Law School job. But Harvard says no, and Harvard always tells the truth.

Nevertheless, Harvard Law School claimed it had a Native American professor while Warren was on the faculty, without identifying who it was. (To be fair, it may have been Alan Dershowitz).

If Warren misrepresented her heritage to advance her career, we can't be too hard on her. Higher education is a rough business, and Warren certainly played the game better than I did. And, as the song goes that Willie Nelson made famous, Liz only did what she had to do.

But Warren is a senator now, and she has an obligation to do some good for the American people. She claims to be an advocate for distressed student-loan debtors, but what has she done for them?

She's written letters to the Department of Education and spouted a lot of nonsense about the "obscene" profits the government makes off the student-loan program. More substantively, she co-sponsored a bill in 2015 to protect seniors from having their Social Security checks garnished, but the bill never became law.

In my view, Senator Warren could do more to address the student loan crisis than file bills and write letters. Specifically, she should join with other progressives in the Senate and press for Senate hearings on the student loan guaranty agencies and Educational Credit Management Corporation in particular. ECMC is perhaps the federal government's most ruthless debt collector and has amassed a billion dollars in unrestricted assets, at least partly from hounding destitute student debtors.

In the Bruner-Halteman case, for example, ECMC garnished the wages of a bankrupt Starbucks employee 37 times in violation of the Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay provision. A Texas bankruptcy slapped ECMC with $74,000 in punitive damages.

And in the Hann case, ECMC continued trying to collect on a woman's student loans even though a bankruptcy court had discharged those loans on the grounds that she had paid them off.  ECMC only got stung with a small penalty for that misbehavior.

Rafael Pardo and the Century Foundation both established that the federal government is paying ECMC's attorney fees, and ECMC is using its attorneys to ground down overburdened student borrowers in the bankruptcy courts. Many of these destitute people don't have the money to hire a lawyer, but ECMC is paying its lawyers as much as $300 an hour.

The public has no idea what ECMC has been up to, and Senate hearings could shine some light on this sleazy organization. How much is ECMC paying its CEO, Jan Hines, and its other senior executives? What is ECMC doing with its wealth? Why does the Department of Education pay ECMC's attorney fees to engage in what Rafael Pardo described as "pollutive litigation"?

Senator Warren could do a great deal of good if she would use her powers of persuasion to get the Senate Banking Committee to hold hearings on ECMC's shady activities. In fact, if Senator Warren got the opportunity to ask ECMC executives some tough questions, I'll bet she could bring this rotten outfit down.

Senator Warren needs to accomplish something tangible to address the student loan crisis if she wants people to regard her as a consumers' advocate. If she doesn't accomplish something soon, Americans will be forced to conclude she is not really a progressive, just as we know she's not really a Cherokee.


How much does ECMC pay its CEO, Jan Hines?

References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

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

John Hechinger. Taxpayers Fund $454,000 Pay for Collector Chasing Student LoansBloomberg.com, May 15, 2013.

Joshua Hicks. Did Elizabeth Warren check the Native American box when she "applied" to Harvard and Penn? Washington Post, September 28, 2012.

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student DebtNew York Times, January 1, 2014.

Rafael Pardo. The Undue Hardship Thicket: On Access to Justice, Procedural Noncompliance, and Pollutive Litigation in Bankruptcy. 66 Florida Law Review 2101 (2014).


Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. 

Brian Walsh. Elizabeth Warren is Rewriting American HistoryU.S. News & World Report, April 22, 2014.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Recent Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Bankruptcy Rulings – March 2017: A Must-Read Article by Steve Rhode

If you are overwhelmed by your student loans and thinking about filing for bankruptcy, you should read this essay by Steve Rhode. Mr. Rhode examined recent bankruptcy court adversary proceedings in which student borrowers brought complaints against Navient or National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. As Mr. Rhode relates, debtors often won significant relief in these lawsuits--sometimes through settlement agreements.

Why is Mr. Rhode's article important to you?

First, his article contains links to adversary complaints that were drafted by attorneys. If you file your own adversary complaint against your student-loan creditor, you can use these complaints as templates to file your own complaint.

Second, the proceedings Mr. Rhode examined show various theories under which debtors sought to have their loans discharged. Some of those theories might work for you.

I am frankly surprised that debtors were so successful in the cases Mr. Rhode analyzed. I wonder whether Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust are more amenable to settlement than Educational Credit Management Corporation and the U.S. Department of Education. ECMC and the Department of Education have opposed bankruptcy relief in a multitude of cases, even in cases where it was clear the debtor was desperate. (See for example, Roth v. ECMC and Abney v. U.S. Department of Education.)

Mr. Rhode has presented us with a very useful analysis of recent adversary proceedings against Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. A trend may be developing toward better bankruptcy outcomes for distressed student-loan debtors. Wouldn't that be a terrific development?




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Out of curiosity I decided to take a look at recent bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings that had closed against Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. I looked at a number of cases and it appears people who filed their own Adversary Proceeding against their student loan holders had a less favorable outcome. Those people represented by an attorney, fair better.

At the very least, while the debt may not have been completely eliminated there were certainly some very deep discounts in the amount owed. Also the outcomes in all cases is not always apparent.

For example in Medina v. National Collegiate Student Loan Trust there was an apparent settlement agreement that contained a “release of liability. The Adversary Proceeding was then dismissed. – Source

Medina had asserted in his lawyer prepared complaint that his student loans should be discharged because his flight school was a “sham,” the loans were not used for a qualified educational purpose, and the school was not properly certified. These are issues raised over in this article. – Source

In the case Ard-Kelly v Sallie Mae the debtor owed $913,997 in loans. Of those loans all but $250,595 could be included in a $0 monthly Income Contingent Repayment plan. – Source

It appears all but $219,070 was found to be dischargeable in bankruptcy. While $219,070 is still a lot of money, it’s only 24% of the original balance stated. – Source

In Cotter v. Navient, the debtor had filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy but was said to have still owed about $29,000 in student loan debt. Cotter stated, “Plaintiff incurred this student loan attending a school named ComputerTraining.com. The campus was located at 550 Polaris Parkway Westerville Ohio 43082. The Plaintiff started classes at said school on November 16, 2007 and was able to finish however the education he received was substandard, outdated and useless to him. Furthermore the school promised lifetime job placement assistance along with assistance with interviewing and resumes. The school he attended closed soon after he finished. The school in question is currently part of a class action lawsuit for fraud.” – Source

Following the court action regarding this debt the $29,000 balance was reduced to $2,500 with payments of $35.79 per month at 1% interest. This is about a 92% reduction in the amount owed. The debt will be fully repaid in 72 months. – Source

In Proctor v. Navient the debtor had co-signed for student loans for someone who was not a relative or dependent and said to not be qualified student loans protected in bankruptcy. – Source

The $188,787 balance was reduced to $15,535 at 3% interest and payments of $107.28 per month for 180 months. This is about a 92% reduction in the amount owed. – Source

So as you can see, recent closed bankruptcy Adversary Proceeding cases do result generally in some significant reductions in debt owed.

Steve Rhode
Get Out of Debt Guy
Twitter, G+, Facebook

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

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

ECMC and the Department of Education are a couple of bullies: The Scott Farkus affair that never ends

Fortunately, we only see Scott Farkus once a year. He comes around every Christmas eve, when TBS runs The Christmas Story for 24 hours. Farkus, you remember, is the yellow-eyed bully that picks on Ralphie Parker and his little brother Randy. Farkus is always accompanied by his pint-sized sidekick, Grover Dill.

ECMC & DOE are real-life bullies for student debtors.

Scott Farkus, of course, is a fictional bully, but destitute student borrower are tormented by a real-life bully--Educational Credit Management Corporation. ECMC,a so-called fiduciary of the U.S Department of Education, gets well paid to hound student-loan debtors who naively try to shed their student loans in bankruptcy to get a fresh start.

Would you like some examples of ECMC's bullying behavior? Here are a few:
  • ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, a woman in her 60s with chronic health problems, who was living on Social Security income of $774 a month. 
  • ECMC successfully blocked Janice Stephenson, a woman in her fifties, from discharging her student loans in bankruptcy--loans that were almost 25 years old. At the time Stephenson filed for bankruptcy, she was living on about $1,000 a month and had a history of homelessness.
  • Last year, a bankruptcy judge slapped ECMC with punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing the wages of Kristin Bruner-Haltemann, a bankrupt student debtor who worked at Starbucks. ECMC violated the automatic stay provision more than 30 times, the bankruptcy court ruled. And how much money was at stake? Ms. Bruner-Haltemann only owed about $5,000.
So Scott Farkus, in a corporate form, is alive and well in American bankruptcy courts.

And Grover Dill, Farkus's little toadie, is also alive and well. The Department of Education itself bullies student borrowers in bankruptcy, almost as cruelly as ECMC.  And here are a few examples:
  • In Myhre v. Department of Education, DOE fought Bradley Myhre, an insolvent quadriplegic who tried to discharge a modest student loan in bankruptcy. DOE lost that one. The court commended Mhyre for his courage: he was working full time but he had to employ a caregiver to feed and dress him and drive him to work. 
  • DOE tried unsuccessfully to persuade a Missouri  bankruptcy court to deny bankruptcy relief to Michael Abney, a single father in his 40s who was living on $1,300 a month and was so poor he rode a bicycle to work because couldn't afford a car. 
  • Just a few months ago, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel ruled against DOE, which had tried to keep Sara Fern from discharging her student debt in bankruptcy. Fern is a single mother of three children who takes home $1,500 a month from her job and supplements her income with food stamps and public rent assistance.
Have I described bullying behavior by ECMC and DOE? Of course I have. Every single time DOE or ECMC shows up in bankruptcy court, the argument is the same: "This deadbeat doesn't deserve bankruptcy relief, your honor. Put the worthless son of a b-tch in a 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plan."

In the past, bankruptcy courts were persuaded by these callous arguments, but judges are beginning to return to their duty. I predict the day is soon coming when a federal appellate court will overrule the precedents that have favored ECMC and DOE--most notably the harsh Brunner ruling that most federal circuits have adopted.

But for now, the bullying goes on.  Just like Scott Farkus and Grover Dill, ECMC and DOE lie in wait for hapless debtors who stagger into bankruptcy court. ECMC has accumulated $1 billion in unrestricted assets while engaging in this shameful behavior, and the federal government pays ECMC's legal fees. 

References

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



Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. BAP 2017).


Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698 (W.D. Wis. 2013).


Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/


Roth v. ECMC, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).


Stevenson v. ECMC, Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 463 B.R. 586 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011). aff'd, 475 B.R. 286 (D. Mass. 2012).













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).

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).




Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bank of America hit with $45 million punitive damages award for violating automatic stay provision of Bankruptcy Code: ECMC take notice!

A few days ago, Judge Christopher Klein, a California bankruptcy judge, struck a breathtaking blow for justice when he assessed $45 million in punitive damages against Bank of America for violating the automatic-stay provision of the Bankruptcy Code. You may recall that a Texas bankruptcy judge hit Educational Credit Management Corporation with a $74,000 punitive damages award for the same offense.

Here are the opening words of Judge Klein's Bank of America decision:

Frank Kafka lives. This automatic stay violation case reveals that he works at Bank of America. 
The mirage of promised mortgage modification lured [Erick and Renee Sundquist] into a kafkaesque nightmare of stay-violating foreclosure and unlawful detainer, tardy foreclosure rescission kept secret for months, home looted while the debtors were dispossessed, emotional distress, lost income, apparent heart attack, suicide attempt, and post-traumatic stress disorder for all of which Bank of America disclaims responsibility. 

Judge Klein then detailed Bank of America's offenses in detail--his opinion is 107 pages long! And at the end, Judge Klein spelled out how the punitive damages award should be apportioned:

The actual . . . damages are $1,074,581.50. The appropriate . . . punitive damages are $45,000,000.00.
The Sundquists are enjoined to deliver $40,000,000 (minus applicable taxes) to public service entities that are important in education in consumer law and deliver of legal services to consumers: National Consumer Law Center ($10,000,000.00), National Consumer Bankruptcy Rights Center ($10,000,000.00), and the five public law schools of the University of California System ($4,000,000.00).

Of course, Bank of America will appeal Judge Klein's punitive damages award, and who knows how that will go. But regardless of what happens on appeal, Judge Klein has turned a glaring spotlight on Bank of America's outrageous behavior.

And if the damages award is upheld, money will flow to entities that can help distressed debtors fight the predatory tactics of the banks.  That would be a great blessing for American society.

And this brings me to Educational Credit Management Corporation, the predatory student-loan debt collector that violated the automatic stay provision of the Bankruptcy Code more than 30 times by repeatedly garnishing the wages of Kristin Bruner-Halteman, a student-loan debtor who worked for Starbucks.  In a 2016 decision, Judge Harlin DeWayne Hale, a Texas bankruptcy judge, awarded Bruner-Halteman $74,000 in punitive damages for ECMC's misbehavior.

But $74,000 is a pittance for ECMC; it probably has that much cash in loose change that slipped under its couch cushions.  According to a report by the Century Foundation, ECMC has $1 billion in unrestricted assets. That's billion with a B.

So--listen up distressed student-loan debtors. If you file for bankruptcy in  a case opposed by ECMC and ECMC violates the Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay provision as it did in the Bruner-Halteman case, you need to ask for several million dollars in punitive damages. How about $10 million--that's only one percent of ECMC's assets.

References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

Sundquist v. Bank of America,  Adv. Pro. No. 204-0228, Case No. 10-35624-B-13J (Bankr. E.D. Calif. March 23, 2017).