Showing posts with label Roth v. ECMC. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Roth v. ECMC. Show all posts

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on student loans: Why don't distressed student borrowers file bankruptcy?

Matt Taibbi wrote a terrific article for Rolling Stone about the student loan crisis. Titled "The Great College Loan Swindle" Taibbi's piece told the story of two distressed student-loan borrowers: Scott Nailor and Veronica Martish.

Nailor borrowed $35,000 to get a college degree in education. Unfortunately, his first teaching job only paid $18,000; and he fell behind on his payments. Ultimately, he filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on his student loans. Apparently, he did not try to expunge his student-loans in bankruptcy, because he still paying on them. Due to penalties and accrued interest, Nailor estimates he now owes $100,000.

Veronica Martish, a 68-year-old military veteran, borrowed $8,000 to take courses at Quinebaug Valley Community College; and her investment in higher education did not pay off any better than Nailor's.  She fell behind on her student-loan payments and her debt swelled to $27,000 due to fees and interest. Martish eventually entered a loan "rehabilitation" program, but her payments hardly put a dent in the loan principle. She told Taibbi that she's paid $63,000 on her student loans and is nowhere near paying them off.

Taibbi's article about the student-loan crisis is excellent, and he choose two people--Nailor and Martish--who could be the poster children for this catastrophe. Unfortunately, Taibbi's article did not mention the one avenue of relief that is probably open to both Martish and Nailor--bankruptcy.

It is true that student loans are very hard to discharge in bankruptcy, but it is not impossible.  Debtors must show that their student loans constitute an "undue hardship," and the courts have traditionally defined undue hardship quite harshly.  Most federal courts have adopted the Brunner test for determining whether undue hardship exists.

The Brunner test ask three questions:

1)Can the debtor maintain a minimal standard of living for himself or herself and dependents and pay off the student loans?

2) Are the debtor's financial circumstances likely to change in the reasonably foreseeable future?

3) Did the debtor handle his or her student loans in good faith?

In the past, the bankruptcy courts applied the Brunner test quite harshly, and many worthy debtors were denied relief. In fact, a myth has developed that it is impossible for debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.

In recent years, however, more and more student debtors have gone into the bankruptcy courts and gotten their loans discharged in bankruptcy or at least partially discharged. In fact, several debtors have gotten bankruptcy relief from their student loans even though their circumstances were less dire than either Nailor's or Martish's. 

Indeed, I feel confident that Nailor and Martish could wipe out their student loans in bankruptcy if only they had competent legal counsel to guide them through the process.

After all, what bankruptcy judge would deny relief to Veronica Martish, a 68-year-old military veteran who borrowed $8,000 and has paid more than $60,000 toward paying off the debt?

What judge would deny relief to Scott Nailor who borrowed $35,000, now owes $100,000 and is so depressed by his debt that he contemplated suicide.

Nailor would be interested to know that several bankruptcy courts have considered the psychological stress of long-term indebtedness when applying the undue hardship rule. And Martish would be interested in knowing that the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel discharged the debt of Janet Roth, a woman about the same age as Martish and who probably made fewer payments on her loans than Martish did.

I feel sure most bankruptcy judges would be quite sympathetic to both Martish and Nailor. Someone needs to tell these distressed debtors that they should file bankruptcy and attempt to get their student loans discharged in bankruptcy through an adversary proceeding.

References

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









Friday, September 22, 2017

Student-Loan Debtors Desperately Need Bankruptcy Lawyers

Too many Americans are going to court without lawyers. As Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals noted in an essay in The Conversation, 80 to 90 percent of people in some states are litigating their cases without attorneys, even when their opponents have legal counsel. In Georgia, the authors assert, courts heard 800,000 cases last year involving self-represented litigants.

Lucas and Meals maintain the United States has "far too few lawyers," but I disagree. As Paul Campos and others have written, there has been a downturn in the legal-services market; and law schools are churning out thousands of new attorneys who graduate with six-figure student loans and no job prospects.

The United States has enough lawyers; in fact, we have too many. The problem is this: practicing lawyers are not representing middle-class people and the poor.

Why? Because most Americans can't afford to pay an attorney to guide them through protracted litigation.  Lawyers leave law school with an average debt load of $140,000; and they must make at least $100,000 a year just to service their student loans. Consequently, attorney fees are too high for most Americans to pay.

Student debtors desperately need lawyers

Lucas and Meals didn't mention the plight of student-loan debtors, but this is a special class of people who need good bankruptcy attorneys. In 2012, Jason Iuliano wrote an important law-review article in which he reviewed bankruptcy filings in 2007. Iuliano found that 238,446 student-loan debtors filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred filers even attempted to discharge their student loans. This is unfortunate because Iuliano estimated that 39 percent of the student borrowers who filed for bankruptcy that year "would have been good candidates to obtain relief."

Remarkably, a few student debtors have gotten their student loans forgiven in the bankruptcy courts  even though they were not represented by a lawyer. Richard Precht in Virginia and Jaime Clavito in California filed adversary actions against the Department of Education and obtained stipulated discharges of their student loans without going to trial. These are amazing victories.

Self-appointed experts assert again and again that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, but this is not true. In recent years, several people have wiped out their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. Moreover, without a doubt, the federal bankruptcy judges are becoming more sympathetic to distressed student borrowers; and the courts are increasingly willing to rule in favor of student-loan debtors when the Department of Education or one of its rapacious debt collectors opposes bankruptcy relief.

What needs to be done?

As I said, the United States has plenty of lawyers, but not enough of them are concerned about justice for the poor. Dozens of public advocacy groups joined lawsuits in support of transgender students who demanded the right to choose their toilet facilities, which is commendable. But 20 million Americans are being crushed by student-loan debt, and very few lawyers have come to their aid.

Where is the Southern Poverty Law Center? Where is the ACLU? Where are the legal aid clinics? Why haven't these agencies joined the fight to bring debt relief to deserving student borrowers?

Just a few able and committed lawyers could completely change the legal landscape for student-loan debtors. I estimate that 25 or 30 competent lawyers, defending a few clients in several federal circuits, could persuade the federal courts to reinterpret the "undue hardship" standard that has been applied so harshly against desperate student borrowers over the years.

In my view, the federal courts are willing to ruling in favor of student borrowers who file bankruptcy if only they are presented with good legal arguments. Many--perhaps most--bankruptcy judges are liberal minded. They know it is their job to provide a fresh start to "honest but unfortunate" debtors. Moreover, I think many are offended by the way the Trump administration has handled the student-loan catastrophe; or at least they would be offended if they were educated by student-loan debtors' attorneys.

The bankruptcy courts provide the best avenue for relief for distressed student-loan debtors

It is time to face harsh facts. Millions of Americans have committed financial suicide by taking out student loans they can't pay back. The student loan program has driven legions of people out of the national economy, preventing them from buying homes, getting married, or saving for their retirement.

Congress has not done anything to provide relief. In fact, the House of Representatives recently approved a bill that will make it almost impossible for defrauded student debtors to sue the for-profit colleges that swindled them. The Department of Education, now run by the wicked witch of the east, Betsy DeVos, is doing everything it can to advance the venal interests of the for-profit college industry.

The bankruptcy courts provide the only hope for relief from oppressive and unpayable student-loan debt. Good lawyers need to represent oppressed student debtors in the bankruptcy courts, educating the judges about the Tenth Circuit's Polleys decision, the Seventh Circuit's Krieger decision, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel's Fern decision, and the Ninth Circuit BAP's Roth decision. The judges need to understand that federal case law now often favors the student-loan debtor.

In sum, we have enough attorneys; but we do not have enough lawyers who are willing to go toe-to-toe against the U.S. Department of  Education, the debt collectors, and the sleazy for-profit college industry.

Betsy DeVos: No friend to student-loan debtors


References

Richard Fossey. Why students need better protection from loan fraud. The Conversation, August 24, 2017.


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

Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals. Every year, millions try to navigate US courts without a lawyer. The Conversation, September 21, 2017







Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dear Secretary Betsy DeVos: Please do the right thing and allow distressed debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy

Dear Secretary DeVos:

You have been Secretary of Education for about  a month, so you know the federal student loan program is in shambles.

Eight million borrowers are in default, millions more aren't making payments while interest accrues on their debt, 5.6 million people have signed up for income-driven repayment plans and are making payments so small that their debt is negatively amortizing even though they are faithfully making regular payments.

Obviously, there are dozens of things the Department of Education can do to address this crisis, but you can easily do one thing to help alleviate mass suffering and it is this: Please direct DOE and all its student-loan debt collectors to stop opposing bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan borrowers.

In 2015, Deputy Secretary Lynn Mahaffie issued a letter stating DOE and its debt collectors would not oppose bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors if it made no economic sense to do so. But in fact, both the Department and its agents oppose bankruptcy relief in almost every case.

And here are just a few examples:
  • In Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, the Department opposed bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic who worked full time but could not make student-loan payments and still pay the full-time caregiver he needed to dress him, feed him, and drive him to work.
  • In Abney v. U.S. Department of Education,  DOE urged a bankruptcy court to put a destitute student borrower into a long term payment plan even though the debtor was living on $1200 a month and was so poor he could not afford to drive a car and was riding a bicycle to work.
  • In Roth v. Educational Credit Management, ECMC fought an elderly woman's efforts to shed her student loans even though the woman had a monthly income of less than $800 a month and suffered from several chronic health problems.
  • In Edwards v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, ECMC argued to an Arizona bankruptcy judge that a 56-year-old counselor who owed $245,000 in student loans should be put in a 25-year repayment plan whereby she would make token payments until she was 81 years old!
Some of these cases were decided before Mahaffie's 2015 letter and some were decided after, but the dates are immaterial. DOE and its agents almost always oppose bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors, no matter how desperate their circumstances.

In fact, DOE's position is essentially this: NO STUDENT DEBTOR IS ENTITLED TO BANKRUPTCY RELIEF. Instead, everyone should be placed in income-driven repayment plan  (IDR) that can last for 20 or even 25 years.

But you could change DOE's position simply by signing your name to a single letter. That letter should say that DOE and its debt collectors will no longer oppose bankruptcy relief for student debtors who cannot pay back their college loans and still maintain a minimal standard of living. And DOE will no longer argue that IDRs are a reasonable alternative to bankruptcy relief.

If you did that, hundreds of thousands of insolvent college-loan borrowers could discharge their student debt in bankruptcy and get a fresh start--a fresh start the bankruptcy courts were established to provide.

Your advisers may argue that the IDR program offers college borrowers a reasonable way to ultimately pay off their student loans, but that's not true. Do you think Rita Edwards would have ever paid back the $245,000 she owed the government by making payments of $81 a month in an IDR as ECMC proposed in her bankruptcy case? Of course not.

Do you think Janet Roth would have ever paid back her student-loan debt of $90,000 if she had been put in an IDR that would have set her monthly payments at zero due to her low income? No, and it was absurd for ECMC to have made that argument in Roth's bankruptcy case.

The stark reality is this. Millions of student borrowers have seen their loan balances double, triple and even quadruple due default fees and accruing interest. Putting these people into 20 and 25-year repayment plans that only require them to make token payments is insane.

Secretary DeVos, you could eliminate so much suffering if you would simply write a letter stating that DOE will no longer oppose bankruptcy relief for people like Myhre, Edwards, Roth, Abney and millions of other people in similar circumstances who will never pay back their student loans.

Please do the right thing.

References

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

Annual Report of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, September 2016.

Ann Carrns. How to Dig Out of Student Loan Default. New York Times, October 21, 2016.

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

Edwards v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Adversary No.. 3:15-ap-26-PS, 2016 WL 1317421 (Bankr. D. Ariz. March 31, 2016).

Lynn Mahaffie, Undue Hardship Discharge of Title IV Loans in Bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings. CL ID: GEN 15-13, July 7, 2015.

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

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013). Available at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/bap/2013/04/16/RothV%20ECMC%20opinion-FINAL%20AZ-11-1233.pdf

Matt Sessa. Federal Student Aid Posts Updated Reports to FSA Data Center. U.S. Department of Education Office of Student Aid, December 20, 2016.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Educational Credit Management Corporation is a bad actor: Rafael Pardo's article about ECMC's litigation misbehavior

In recent blogs, I discussed two cases in which Educational Credit Management Corporation, the Department of Education's most ruthless student-loan debt collector, was sanctioned by a court for misbehavior. In the Bruner-Halteman case, a Texas bankruptcy judge assessed punitive damages against ECMC for garnishing the wages of a bankrupt Starbucks employee in violation of the Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay provision. The judge awarded Ms. Bruner-Halteman $74,000 in punitive damages--$2,000 for each of the 37 times ECMC wrongly garnished her wages.

In the Hann case, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld sanctions against ECMC for trying to collect on a student loan debt in spite of the fact that a federal bankruptcy judge had ruled that the debt had been paid.

Are these isolated cases of misbehavior? No they are not. In 2014, Rafael Pardo published an article in the University of Florida Law Review that documents how often ECMC's attorneys engage in "pollutive litigation" in cases against hapless bankrupt student-loan debtors.

Pardo's article is long (77 pages) and a bit dense and technical (477 footnotes).  I will limit my discussion of his impressive essay to a few of the highlights:

Failure to file corporate ownership statement

The Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure require corporate parties in adversary proceedings to file a "corporate ownership statement" that identifies any corporate party that directly or indirectly owns 10 percent or more of the corporate party's equity interests. According to Pardo's analysis of a random sample of cases, ECMC failed to file its corporate ownership statement 81 percent of the time during 2011 and 2012.

What is the significance of ECMC's noncompliance This is what Pardo said:
The significance of such procedural noncompliance is that, in the overwhelming majority of these adversary proceedings, ECMC has failed to provide the presiding judge with the information necessary to determine whether [the judge] has a financial interest in ECMC that would warrant self-disqualification. Even assuming that ECMC would not have had to report any entity in the corporate ownership statement if ECMC had been procedurally compliant, the failure to file the statement casts a cloud on the legitimacy of the outcomes of proceedings that ended favorably for ECMC. (p. 2149)
Motion Practice 

Pardo also documented incidents when ECMC failed to abide by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in its motion practice.  First, in some adversary proceedings a student-loan debtor fails to name ECMC as a defendant, probably because the debtor did not know the name of the correct party to sue. In such cases, ECMC is required to state with particularity that the debtor's student-loan debt has been assigned to ECMC and that it is the proper party to litigate whether the debt is dischargeable.

Pardo found that ECMC often asserted itself as the proper party in an adversary proceeding without filing the appropriate representations about its interests. First, Pardo found that in 9.2 percent of a random sample of cases, ECMC didn't file any motion to become a named party; it simply entered into the litigation as if it had been named in the student-debtor's complaint. (p. 2153)

Furthermore, when ECMC did file a motion to join the litigation, the motion contained a substantive deficiency 80 percent of the time (in the cases Pardo examined).  Deficiencies included failing to allege assignment of the loan, failure to provide documentation of a loan's assignment, and failure to indicate which of the Federal Rules entitled it to be granted relief.

One might respond to Pardo's findings with a yawning so-what, but as Pardo pointed out, "Such procedural noncompliance is significant because it calls into question the legitimacy of a court's decision to allow a movant who may not have a valid basis to join the litigation" (p. 2153). Moreover, the fact that bankruptcy courts have allowed ECMC to get away with these procedural violations suggests that the courts aren't looking closely enough to determine whether ECMC has the right to insert itself into a student-debtor's adversary proceeding.

Responsive-Pleading Practice

Pardo's research found that student debtors named ECMC as a named defendant about 24 percent of the time. In such cases, ECMC filed an improper response in about one case out of four. (p. 256)

In the majority of the cases Pardo examined, the debtor did not name ECMC as a defendant. In those cases, ECMC was required to file a motion to intervene on the grounds that it was the proper named party. In the cases Pardo reviewed, ECMC filed an improper response 89 percent of the time. For example, ECMC would sometimes answer a student debtor's complaint before it had served its motion to intervene.

How these irregularities affects a student-debtor's interest is a bit complicated, and I invite you to read Pardo's discussion on that issue. But it is remarkable, in my view, that ECMC, a sophisticated debt collector, fails to abide by the Federal Rules of Procedure on so many occasions.

Discovery Practice

Pardo also found significant rules violation in ECMC's discovery practices. In particular, Pardo found a case in which ECMC moved for summary judgment based on a student debtor's deemed admissions even though ECMC had wrongly asked the debtor to admit to a conclusion of law.

In my mind, ECMC engages in serious misconduct when it formally asks a bankrupt student-loan debtor to admit to conclusions of law--especially an unsophisticated debtors who is not represented by an attorney.  Not only are such requests impermissible under the Federal Rules, but student debtors may not know that; and they may also not know that an unanswered Request for Admission is deemed to be admitted.

Conclusion: ECMC engages in "pollutive litigation" and it uses taxpayer's money to do so

Pardo characterized ECMC's bankruptcy-case behavior as "pollutive litigation," and that's putting the matter mildly. ECMC gets reimbursed by the federal government for its attorney fees--fees that are often spent harassing unsophisticated debtors who do not even have lawyers.

Moreover, ECMC frequently wears student debtors down just by prolonging the litigation. Janet Roth, for example, an elderly woman living on Social Security income of less than $800 a month, filed for bankruptcy in January 2009. Her case was not concluded until April 2013, more than four years later.

There are a lot of things Congress can do to clean up the student-loan mess and bring relief to millions of suffering student debtors. But shutting down ECMC would be a big step in the right direction.

The Department of Education Should Shut This Bad Boy Down.


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 Loans. Bloomberg.com, May 15, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-15/taxpayers-fund-454-000-pay-for-collector-chasing-student-loans.html

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014. Acccessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/us/loan-monitor-is-accused-of-ruthless-tactics-on-student-debt.html?_r=0

Rafael Pardo. The Undue Hardship Thicket: On Access to Justice, Procedural Noncompliance and Pollutive Litigation in Bankruptcy66 Florida Law Review 2101-2178.

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 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/


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Betsy DeVos, Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, has the power to ease the suffering of student-loan debtors

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, has no experience in higher education, and that may be a good thing for student-loan debtors.

Most commentators on the student-loan crisis are insiders who want to maintain the status quo regarding the federal student loan program. The universities depend on regular infusions of student-loan money, which enables them to raise their tuition prices year after year at twice the rate of inflation.

But DeVos has no ties to higher education at all, and thus she has the capacity to look at the student-loan catastrophe from a fresh perspective. In fact, DeVos has the power to do one simple thing that could potentially bring relief to millions of distressed student-loan debtors.

Under current bankruptcy law, debtors cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show that repaying the loans will cause them "undue hardship."  In nearly every case, the Department of Education and the student-loan guaranty companies argue that student-loan debtors should be denied bankruptcy relief under the undue hardship standard.

Instead, they routinely demand that distressed college borrowers enroll in long-term income-based repayment plans that can last for 20 or even 25 years.  And DOE and its debt collectors make this demand even when debtors' income is so low that they pay nothing or next to nothing under the terms of these plans.

Here are some examples:
  • In the Edwards case, decided last spring, Educational Credit Management (ECMC) argued that Rita Gail Edwards, a woman in her mid-50s, should pay $56 a month for 25 years to service a debt of almost a quarter of a million dollars! 
  • In the Roth case, ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on Social Security income of less than $800 a month. Instead, ECMC wanted Roth to enter a long-term repayment plan even though ECMC conceded that Roth's income was so low that she would pay nothing under the plan. 
  • In the Abney case, DOE wanted Abney, a 40-year-old father of two, to enter a 25-year income-based repayment plan. Abney was living on $1200 a month and was so poor he couldn't afford a car and rode a bicycle to get to his job.
In essence, DOE and the debt collectors maintain that almost no one is entitled to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy and that everyone should be placed in long-term, income based repayment plans.

What if Secretary DeVos simply decreed that DOE and the loan guaranty agencies will stop pushing long-term repayment plans in the bankruptcy courts and would consent to bankruptcy discharges for people like Roth, Edwards, and Abney? (Incidentally, in all three cases, the bankruptcy courts rejected the creditors' arguments and discharged the student loans in their entirety.)

By consenting to bankruptcy discharges for people like Abney, Edwards and Roth, the Department of Education would signal to the bankruptcy courts that it supports a less harsh interpretation of the "undue hardship" standard. That would open the door for thousands of people of distressed debtors to file bankruptcy to discharge their student loans.

Some people might argue that my proposal would unleash a flood of bankruptcy filings that would undermine the financial integrity of the federal student loan program. But let's face facts. People like Roth, Edwards and Abney would never have paid back their student loans, and placing them in 25-year repayment plans that would have obligated them to make token payments that would have done nothing more than maintain the cynical fiction that their loans weren't in default.

Wouldn't it be better for DOE to be candid about the student-loan crisis and admit that millions of people will never pay back their loans? Wouldn't it be better public policy to allow honest but unfortunate debtors to get the fresh start that the bankruptcy courts are intended to provide?

Betsy DeVos is fresh on the scene of the student-loan catastrophe. Let's hope she brings some fresh thinking to the U.S. Department of Education.


Mark http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/donald-trump-president-elect.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article

Friday, October 28, 2016

Educational Credit Management Corporation and the U.S. Department of Education: Are They Co-Conspirators in Accounting Fraud?

Last March, an Arizona bankruptcy court discharged $245,000 in student loan debt owed by  Rita Gail Edwards, a 56-year-old single woman earning a tenuous living as a counselor. Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), her student-loan creditor, fought the discharge. ECMC wanted Edwards placed in a 25-year income-based repayment plan. Under such a plan, Edwards would only pay $84 a month on her loans for 25 years.

ECMC's position was absurd, of course. A woman in her late 50s  will never pay off a $245,000 loan by making monthly payments of $84. The only possible purpose that is served by jamming Ms. Edwards into a 25-year repayment plan is to carry her student-loan debt on the Department of Education's books as a performing loan.

In ruling for Ms. Edwards, the bankruptcy judge questioned the wisdom of a system that allowed Edwards to borrow so much money. "In hindsight, it is a shame that [Edwards] ever incurred these student loan debts," the court observed.
While her Ottawa University education may have given her the tools and credentials to work in an emotionally satisfying role [as a counselor] and may have provided a well needed skilled counselor in her rural community, the predictable economic burden was never likely to justify the massive economic burden she incurred.
The Edwards case demonstrates the insanity of the federal student-loan program. Our government allows people to borrow extravagant amounts of money for educational programs that will never pay off, and then it engages debt collectors to push borrowers into long-term income-based repayment plans that stretch out over 25 years and will almost never result in the loans being repaid.

And the Edwards case is not an anomaly. In the Roth case, ECMC opposed a bankruptcy discharge for an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month. In fact, Roth's income was so low that ECMC acknowledged that Roth's monthly payments under an income-based repayment plan would be zero!

In the Halverson case, ECMC opposed a discharge for a man in his sixties making less than $14 an hour as a substitute teacher and who owed almost $300,000 in student loan debt. Mr. Halverson borrowed less than half the amount he owed when he filed bankruptcy and was never in default. His debt ballooned mostly due to accruing interest while his loans were in deferment.

The Department of Education itself has taken the same irrational stance regarding bankruptcy discharge for student debtors. In the Myhre case, DOE opposed a discharge for a quadriplegic, and in the Abney case, it opposed a discharge for  a single father of two children who was living on less than $1200 a month and could not even afford to own a car.

Why?

 I can think of only one reason. ECMC and DOE are engaged in a massive accounting fraud, trying to convince the public that the federal student loan program is solvent and fiscally sound. But in fact the student loan program is a disaster. Eight million people are in default and and one out of four debtors are either in default or behind on their loan payments.

ECMC benefits from the status quo--that is clear. According to a Century Foundation report, it has $1 billion in unrestricted assets, most of it obtained from its loan-collection activities. The Westlaw database shows that ECMC has  appeared as a named party in over 500 federal court rulings; it has spent literally millions of dollars in attorney fees chasing after people like Gail Edwards and Janet Roth.

And who pays those fees?  According to a law review article written by Rafael Pardo, ECMC draws money from a Federal Reserve Fund to finance its loan-collection activities and has access to "significant [federal] resources when litigating against student-loan debtors" (p. 2145).  Pardo cites a document showing that DOE allowed ECMC to keep a quarter of a billion dollars that it drew from DOE's Federal Reserve Fund to finance its activities in 2008 (p. 2145).

So you, Mr. & Ms American taxpayer, are paying ECMC to engage in unproductive litigation against impoverished debtors--litigation intended to keep the student-loan crisis under wraps.

And ECMC is a nonprofit organization--supposedly devoted to the public good.

But ECMC is not acting for the public good. On the contrary, ECMC is DOE's hit man--the entity DOE sends to beat down bankrupt student debtors and prevent them from getting the bankruptcy relief they deserve.

 ECMC's senior executives are getting well paid to be DOE's "Mac the Knife."  Its CEO makes at least a million dollars a year.

References

Annual Report of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, September 2016. Available at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/102016_cfpb_Transmittal_DFA_1035_Student_Loan_Ombudsman_Report.pdf

Edwards v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Adversary No.. 3:15-ap-26-PS, 2016 WL 1317421 (Bankr. D. Ariz. March 31, 2016). Available at http://www.azb.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/024139558300_dmd.pdf

In re: Halverson, 401 B.R. 378 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2009).

Rafael Pardo. The Undue Hardship Thicket: On Access to Justice, Procedural Noncompliance and Pollutive Litigation in Bankruptcy. 66 Florida Law Review 2101-2178. Available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2426744

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013). Available at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/bap/2013/04/16/RothV%20ECMC%20opinion-FINAL%20AZ-11-1233.pdf

Friday, July 8, 2016

Message to Distressed Student-Loan Debtors: Don't Give Up! Change is In the Wind

Don't give up
'cause you have friends
Don't give up
You're not the only one
Don't give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don't give up
You still have us
Don't give up now
We're proud of who you are
Don't give up
You know it's never been easy
Don't give up
'cause I believe there's a place
There's a place where we belong
Don't Give Up
Lyrics by Kate Bush & Peter Gabriel 

If you are overwhelmed by your student-loan debt, discouraged, and don't know where to turn, take my advice. Go to your refrigerator, pop the cap off a Shiner, and then listen to Don't Give Up, written by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Several artists have sung the song, but I prefer Willie Nelson's version.

Some of the lyrics prompt me to reflect on the millions of Americans who are burdened by their unpayable student loans. "Don't give up," Willie tells us. "No reason to be ashamed." You still have your friends.

And I personally believe that change is in the wind regarding the federal student loan program. I think the magnitude of the student-loan disaster has grown so enormous that the federal government can't ignore it.  I see faint signs that help is on the way.

Why do I think this?

First, the Department of Education is finally moving forward on banning mandatory arbitration clauses in student-enrollment contracts at the for-profit colleges. If DOE follows through, students who were defrauded by their colleges can sue and can even join class actions. This is a good sign, and could mark the beginning of the end for the rapacious for-profit college industry. 

Second, Hillary essentially embraced Bernie Sanders's call for free college education at public universities this week (with some qualifications). This is also a good sign, because no scheme to offer free tuition is workable without massive reform of the federal student-loan program.

Third, and more importantly, Hillary called for a 3-month hiatus on student-loan payments while students refinance their loans to take advantage of lower interest rates. Once the federal government begins a wholesale effort to refinance millions of loans,  it will be apparent to everyone that the student-loan program is a train wreck. Broad relief could emerge from Hillary's idea.

Fourth, the bankruptcy courts are beginning to remember their purpose, which is to offer a fresh start to honest but unfortunate debtors. The recent cases are all over the place, with some courts still issuing callous decisions. But there are a lot of good decisions: Roth, Hedlund, Krieger, Abney, McDowell, Fern, etc.

Fifth, the Department of Education issued an important letter in July, 2015 outlining when it would not oppose bankruptcy discharge for student-loan debtors. DOE said creditors should consider the cost of opposing bankruptcy discharges, whether or not they think a debtor can show undue hardship if forced to repay student loans.

So far, this letter has been largely ignored. In my opinion, DOE did not act in harmony with the letter when it opposed bankruptcy discharge in the Abney case out of Missouri.  But DOE is now on record that it recognizes a variety of circumstances when a bankruptcy discharge is appropriate for some student loan debtors.

Richard Precht used that letter to his advantage in a Virginia bankruptcy decision earlier this year. He presented the letter to a very receptive Virginia bankruptcy judge, and DOE agreed not to oppose a discharge of Precht's debt. 

I acknowledge that all these signs of hope are faint and that a lot of misery lies ahead for millions of college borrowers who now hold about $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt.

But this catastrophe will someday come to an end--it can't go on forever. I recall my father, who was captured by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula during World War II ad endured the living hell of a Japanese prison camp from April 1942 until August 1945.

Two thirds of the men who were captured with my father did not survive the war. Some were murdered, some starved to death, and a few committed suicide. But my father survived, and the war ended.

Likewise, the federal student-loan program will eventually collapse, and millions of deserving college borrowers will get relief.  So, remember Willie's advice: Don't give up. 

And keep a six-pack of Shiner on hand  in your refrigerator. (My advice, not Willie's, but I'm sure he would agree.)

Image result for shiner beer
Don't give up: You've still got your friends

References

Stephanie Saul and Matt Flegenheimer. Hillary Clinton Embraces Ideas From Bernie Sanders's College Tuition PlanNew York Times, July 6, 2016. Accessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/07/us/politics/hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-education.html?_r=0

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016. Accessible at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/07/05/clinton-to-propose-3-month-hiatus-for-repayment-of-student-loans/?hpid=hp_special-topic-chain_clinton-loans-11pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Alan Collinge is too pessimistic about bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors: The Times May Be A-Changin'


Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
Bob Dylan
Alan Collinge wrote an interesting book a few years ago entitled The Student Loan Scam, which I reviewed in the Journal of Law and Education. He is very knowledgeable about the student-loan crisis, and much that he has to say about this problem is useful. Nevertheless, he is far too pessimistic about bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors.

In an interview with Peter J. Reilly, a Forbes Magazine contributor, Collinge expressed a very bleak view regarding a distressed student-loan debtor's chances in the bankruptcy court. As Reilly summarized Collinge's position, "Alan argued that the chance of bankruptcy relief remains remote, and that the murmurers may be consultants who are engaging in bait and switch." In the interview itself, Collinge said, "Almost no well-versed lawyer will recommend it because of the unlikelihood of winning."

It is true that the Department of Education and its various loan collection agencies have vigorously fought bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors in almost every case. As Colling observed:
[M]ake no mistake, even for the most destitute borrowers, the Department of Education, ECMC, and the entire lending industry are continuing to pour massive resources into defeating them in bankruptcy court by using shameless fear tactics with the judges, who they pressure ceaselessly--and usually successfully--to make bankruptcy determinations against [ ] these most impoverished individuals rather than for them.
And I think Collinge is also correct to say that so-called "debt coaches" and consultants may be dispensing inaccurate information about bankruptcy relief for the purpose of signing up distressed student-loan debtors in "loan rehabilitation" plans whereby student loans are repackaged into larger loans due to the various fees and penalties that get tacked on to the original principal.

But Collinge is just wrong to disparage the bankruptcy option for discharging student loans. Several bankruptcy courts have ruled with surprising compassion and common sense toward student-loan borrowers in recent years--relieving honest but unfortunate debtors of their student-loan obligations. Remarkably, many student-loan debtors have been successful in the bankruptcy courts even when they went to court without lawyers. Abney v. U.S. Department of EducationAcosta-Conniff v. ECMC, Johnson v. Sallie Mae, and Precht v. U.S. Department of Education--all decided within the last year--are recent victories for student-loan debtors who represented themselves in bankruptcy court.

It is true that some student-loan debtors have lost their cases in the bankruptcy courts. Butler v. ECMC, decided last month, is a particularly heartbreaking case because Brenda Butler's situation was more dire than several student-loan debtors who won their cases. But Roth v. ECMC and Krieger v. ECMC, two appellate-level decisions, are an indication that the federal courts are rethinking their harsh stance toward student-loan debtors.

One thing is certain. Overburdened and insolvent student-loan debtors have nothing to lose by trying to get their student-loan debt discharged in bankruptcy. And it is not helpful or useful to tell people that bankruptcy relief for student-loan debt is nearly impossible.

As Bob Dylan put it,"[D]on't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin." In other words, the times may be a-changing.

References

Acosta-Conniff v. Educational Credit Corporation, 536 B.R. 326 (M.D. Ala. 2015).

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

Fossey, R. (2009). Review of The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History—And How We Can Fight Back, by Alan Michael Collinge. Journal of Law and Education, 38, 715-718 (2009). Available at http://www.studentloanjustice.org/fosseybookreview.pdf

Johnson v. Sallie Mae, ., No. 11-23108, Adv. No. 11-6250,  2015 WL 795830 (Bankr. D Kan. Feb. 19, 2015).

Krieger v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 713 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2013).

Precht v. United States Department of Education, AD PRO 15-01167-RGM (Bankr. E.D. Va. Feb. 11, 2016 (Consent Order).

Peter J. Reilly. Interview With Student Loan Activist Alan Collinge On Bankruptcy Protection, Forbes, October 28, 2015. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2015/10/28/interview-with-student-loan-activist-alan-collinge-on-bankruptcy-protection/#64fa9b7a6438

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).