Showing posts with label Price v. U.S. Department of Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Price v. U.S. Department of Education. Show all posts

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A single mother of three children gets a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans: Price v. Betsy DeVos and U.S. Department of Education

Kristin Price, a single mother of three young children, won an important victory in a Pennsylvania bankruptcy court last month. On June 23, Judge Eric Frank issued an opinion discharging all of Ms. Price's federal student loans--approximately $26,000. This is another win for the good guys.

Price v. DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education: A single mom files for bankruptcy

At the time of trial, Ms. Price was 29 years old and had three children ages 3, 5 and 11. Although she was still married, she was separated from her husband and anticipated a divorce.

Price obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Radiology Science from Thomas Jefferson University in 2011, financing her studies with federal and private loans.  At the time of trial, she worked part-time as a vascular sonographer but was unable to find full-time work in her field. She testified she could obtain a second part-time job working outside her field but the additional child care costs did not justify that option.

Price received informal child support from her estranged husband, but her reasonable expenses still exceeded her income. She testified that she lived with her mother in return for paying her mother's mortgage payment--about $1400 a month.

At the time Price filed her adversary complaint in the bankruptcy court, she owed nearly $26,000 in federal loans and $30,000 to Chase Bank.  Price settled with Chase prior to trial. Thus the only issue before Judge Frank was whether Price was entitled to have her federal loans discharged.

Judge Frank applied the three-part Brunner test to rule for Ms. Price

Judge Frank applied the three-part Brunner test to decide Price's case. The Department of Education conceded that Price passed the first prong of the Brunner test; she could not pay back her federal loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.

The Department also conceded that Price passed Brunner's third prong. It acknowledged that she had handled her student loans in good faith.

But DOE argued that Price could not pass Brunner's second prong. According to DOE, Price could not show additional circumstances making it likely that her financial situation would not improve "for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans." Basically, DOE maintained that Price was young and healthy and was qualified for a good job in the medical field. Eventually, DOE pointed out, Price's children would grow up and leave the home, which would enable Price to get a better job and repay her student loans.

And here is where Judge Frank's opinion gets interesting. Price argued that her future financial prospects should be considered for no longer than the remaining period of her 10-year loan repayment obligation, which ended in 2024. DOE argued that Judge Frank should consider Price's financial prospects for a much longer time--the 20- or 25-year period of an income-based repayment plan.

Fortunately for Price, Judge Frank did not buy DOE's argument. The judge ruled that Price had rejected a long-term income-based repayment plan in good faith; and thus he would consider her financial prospects based on the terms of her ten-year repayment obligation and not the 20 or 25 years DOE requested.

Judge Frank said he was obligated to consider Price's future financial prospects based on "specific articulable facts, not unfounded optimism." If he were required to consider Price's financial situation over a 20- or 25-year term, Judge Frank reasoned, his determination "[would] be nothing more than mere guesswork, without any reasonable degree of certitude."

Moreover, Judge Frank pointed out, DOE's own expert testified that DOE's 20-year REPAYE program was ill-suited for Price and that he would not recommend it for her. Judge Price also noted that a REPAYE plan would require Price to consolidate her debt, which would cause accrued interest to be capitalized into a larger loan balance--meaning she would be "paying interest on interest."

If Price's meager income did not improve significantly in later years, Judge Frank explained, her loan would eventually "reach a kind of 'escape velocity,'" meaning that her monthly payments would not be enough to cover accruing interest and her loan balance would grow "for the next several decades."

Based on this analysis, Judge Frank then considered what Price's financial prospects would likely be over the next five years--about 70 percent of the remaining repayment period. The judge concluded Price would probably be unable to pay back her loans over that period.

In short, after applying the second prong of the Brunner test to Price's financial outlook, the judge discharged all of Price's federal loans.

Without question, the heart of Judge Price's ruling was based on his conclusion that Price had rejected a long-term payment period in good faith. And of course, his decision was made a lot easier due to the fact that DOE's own expert admitted that a long-term repayment plan was not appropriate for her.

What does the Price decision mean for other overburdened student-loan debtors?

 Judge Frank's Price decision is significant for at least three reasons:

 First, this is the most recent in a string of bankruptcy court decisions that have discharged student-loan debt owed by single mothers with dependent children. Price follows in the wake of Lamento, Acosta-Conniff (on appeal), Fern, and McDowell--all decisions involving single mothers with children who won discharges or partial discharges of their student loans.

Second, this is the latest in a series of very well-reasoned bankruptcy court decisions in which bankruptcy judges have worked hard to grant relief to overburdened debtors within the harsh constraints of the Brunner test. Judge Frank's decision was 25 pages long; Judge Berger's decision in the Johnson case out of Kansas was extensively researched. The Abney decision, the Fern decision, and several more have displayed remarkable intellectual agility and commendable commitment to the bankruptcy courts' core purpose, which is to grant overburdened debtors a fresh start in life.

Third, Judge Frank ruled that when a court applies the second prong of the Brunner test to determine whether  a debtor's financial prospects will improve in the future, the appropriate time period for consideration is the original term of the loan (generally 10 years) rather than the extended term of a hypothetical 20-year or 25-year income-based repayment plan.

Admittedly, Judge Frank's conclusion on this last point is a little fuzzy. Price had refused to sign up for a long-term, income-based repayment plan, and Judge Frank ruled that Price's decision to reject such a plan had been made in good faith. Judge Frank might have ruled differently if Price had signed up for a 20-year REPAYE plan before filing for bankruptcy.

Indeed, the judge wrote that the "outcome may well be different in other cases in which the extended loan repayment programs present a more attractive option, or for other appropriate reasons." And the judge also noted that DOE did not dispute the fact that Price's decision to reject a long-term repayment plan had been made in good faith.

In the final analysis, all we can say for sure about the Price decision is this: A healthy 29-year old mother of three children with good future job prospects won a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans based primarily on the fact that her judge did not think Price would be in a position to repay her loans over the next five years.

Personally, I would have liked the Price decision better if Judge Frank had said that a student-loan debtor's financial prospects should always be limited to the term of the original student loan--generally no more than 10 years. That's not what the judge ruled. Nevertheless, it is a good decision for student-loan debtors.

References



Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation], 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015), reversed550 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.

In re Lamento, 520 B.R. 667 (Bkrtcy. N.D. Ohio 2014).

Price v. U.S. Department of Education, ky. No. 15-17645 ELF, Adv. No. 16-0011, 2017 Bankr. LEXIS 1748 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 2017).


McDowell v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 549 B.R. 744, 774 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2016).






Thursday, May 18, 2017

University of Phoenix graduate got her student loans discharged on the grounds that Phoenix falsely certified she was eligible to receive the loans

 As the Department of Education attests on its own web site, DOE will forgive or cancel student loans under certain circumstances. For example, students are entitled to have their loans forgiven if the school they were attending closes while they were enrolled or shortly thereafter.   Students can also obtain a discharge if they can show they were induced to take out student loans through fraud. And students are also entitled to have their student loans discharged if the school they attended falsely certified that they were eligible to receive a federal student loan.

Unfortunately, the administrative process for obtaining a loan discharge is not easy to navigate. In fact, one might conclude that DOE sets up roadblocks to prevent student borrowers from obtaining the discharges to which they are legally entitled. Price v. U.S. Department of Education, decided last year, illustrates just how difficult it can be to obtain a loan discharge even when a student is clearly qualified for relief.

Price v. U.S. Department of Education: The facts

Phyllis Price graduated with a degree from the University of Phoenix in 2005. She paid for her studies by taking out student loans, which she consolidated into a single loan in the amount of $36,868 bearing interest at 5.3 percent.

Price was 52 years old when she began her studies at the University of Phoenix and had not graduated from high school. A university counselor "instructed her to state on the [admission] application that she had actually finished school and to fill in the year she 'should have graduated.'" Price filled out the forms as she was directed.

Apparently, Price's degree from Phoenix did not benefit her financially. She was working as a contract administrator at the time she began her studies and she was still doing substantially the same work ten years after obtaining her degree.

Price's first payment on her consolidated loan was due in August 2006. She did not make payments on the loan, and the Department of Education (DOE) declared her in default in October 2007.

In March 2008, Price filed a "False Certification (Ability to Benefit) Loan Discharge Application" in an effort to get her loans discharged. Essentially, she argued that her student loans should be cancelled because the University of Phoenix had falsely certified that she was eligible to receive federal student loans for her studies.

American Student Assistance (ASA), DOE's loan servicer, denied Price's application and told her to produce evidence that she did not have a high school diploma. Price produced her high school transcript, which was prominently stamped "DID NOT GRADUATE" and asked for a hearing.

On June 24, 2009, more than a year after Price produced her high school transcript, DOE affirmed ASA's original decision denying her a loan discharge.  On October 1, 2014--more than six years after she filed her discharge application, DOE issued its final decision denying Price's "false certification discharge application."  A short time later, Price received notice that her wages were subject to being garnished for failure to pay back her student loan. Price then brought suit in federal court.

Statutory and Regulatory Issues Pertinent to Price's case


Under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), private lenders make loans to "eligible borrowers" to finance postsecondary studies. The loans are insured by student loan guaranty agencies and reinsured by DOE. Generally, an eligible borrower is someone who has a high school diploma or a GED. 

"However, a 'student who does not have a certificate of graduation from a school providing secondary education, or the recognized equivalent of such certificate,' may qualify for a loan if the school certifies that she has the ability to  benefit from the education it provides." Price v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 209 F. Supp. 3d 925, 930 (S.D. Tex. 2016) (quoting 20 U.S.C. sec. 1091(d)). 

A school can certify that a student has the ability to benefit from its programs if the student passes an independently administered ATB ("ability to benefit") test.  However, the University of Phoenix did not require Price to take an ATB test.

What is the purpose of the "ability to benefit" rule? Congress adopted "ability to benefit" legislation in 1992, "spurred by public concern over unscrupulous schools exploiting student borrowers who received no benefit from expensive classes of little use." Id. Under federal law (20 U.S.C. sec. 1087(c) (1)), the Department of Education is required to discharge loans taken out by people who were falsely certified as being eligible to receive federal loans by the schools they attended. 

A federal magistrate rules in Price's favor

Price filled out an application to have her loans discharged in 2008, asserting under oath that she did not have a high school diploma at the time she took out federal loans and had not  been given an ATB test. End of story, right?

No, DOE refused to discharge her student loans on the grounds that it had no evidence that University of Phoenix had systematically violated the "ability to benefit" rules. In refusing to forgive Price's loans, a federal magistrate found, DOE violated federal law and DOE's own regulations. In essence, the magistrate observed, DOE's decision-making process "amounted to a cursory glance at the forest, with no attempt to spot the only tree that mattered."

DOE attempted to defend its decision by offering post-hoc rationalizations. In particular, the Department argued that Price obtained a degree from the University of Phoenix and should not be allowed to benefit from that degree without paying for it. But the federal magistrate rejected that argument, pointing out that Price was entitled to have her loans forgiven whether or not she obtained a degree. 

Furthermore, the magistrate noted, Price apparently had not benefited from her studies at the University of Phoenix. "Price is doing essentially the same job as before she enrolled, and any psychic benefit from achieving a degree is more than offset by eight years of fending off debt collectors." In any event,  the Magistrate continued, "Congress did not see fit to condition student loan relief upon a showing that the student ultimately failed to graduate." Id. at 934.

Why did DOE deny Price the relief to which she was legally entitled?

Clearly, Price was ill treated by DOE, which dragged her through a tedious administrative process for six years before ultimately denying her claim.  And, as a federal magistrate concluded, Price was clearly entitled to have her student loans forgiven under federal law and DOE's own regulations.

Why did DOE take the position it did? I can think of only one reason--DOE is so desperate to keep people from getting their loans forgiven that it is willing to ignore federal law. 

DOE is like the fabled Dutch boy with his thumb in the dike. Once a few people are granted relief from their student loans, it will be apparent that millions are entitled to relief. That will lead to a torrent of loan forgiveness, which will cause the federal student loan program to collapse.



References

Price v. U.S. Dep't of Education, 209 Fed. Supp. 3d 925 (S.D. Tex. 2016).