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

Thursday, January 18, 2018

America's harsh treatment of student-loan debtors: Greed, corruption and heartlessness reach Dickensian proportions

That old wheel is gonna roll around once more
When it does it will even up the score
Don't be weak, as they sew, they will reap
Turn the other cheek and don't give in
That old wheel will roll around again

This Old Wheel
Jennifer Ember Pierce, songwriter
Sung best by Johnny Cash

If you haven't read Charles Dickens by now, just skip it. 
Dickens is well worth reading for his descriptions of injustice in Victorian England: the workhouses, the brutal schools, debtors prisons, and the mercilessness of English law. But  contemporary America is descending to the depths of social injustice every bit as sordid as conditions in Dickens' England. If you don't believe me, read Matthew Desmond's Evicted, published less than two years ago.  
In particular, millions of student-loan debtors are suffering just as much as the characters in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Pickwick Papers.  College debtors are defaulting at the rate of 3,000 a day. The U.S. Department reports a three-year default rate of 11 percent, but that figure is meaningless. The five-year default rate for a recent cohort of student debtors is 28 percent, for students attending for-profit schools it's 47 percent.
And the default rate only tells part of the story. Millions of people are in the economic-hardship deferment program--excused from making monthly loan payments while interest piles up. Now we see people stumble into the bankruptcy courts owing three and even four times what they borrowed.

Our government treats all student-loan defaulters like criminals. We aren't hanging and deporting debtors like the English did back in the nineteenth century, but they are treated pretty rough.

For starters, there is no statute of limitations on an unpaid federal student loan. Even if you borrowed the money so long ago you can't remember the school you attended, the government's debt collectors can come after you. 

In Lockhart v. United States, our lovely Supreme Court upheld the law permitting the government to garnish the social checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. The vote was  9 to 0. There were no liberals on the Court the day the Lockhart decision came down. 

And Congress and the courts have conspired to deprive distressed student-loan debtors access to the bankruptcy courts. Under the "undue hardship" standard nestled in 11 U.S.C. sec. 523(a)(8),  debtors cannot discharge their student loans unless they can show undue hardship, which the courts have interpreted harshly.

In recent years, there have been some compassionate and sensible decisions by the bankruptcy courts: the Abney case, the Lamento decision, and the Acosta-Conniff decision out of Alabama (which was reversed on appeal).

But the Department of Education, Educational Credit Management Corporation, and other debt collection agencies have appealed many of these decisions; and few student debtors have the financial or emotional resources for court fights that stretch on for years.  In the Hedlund case, for example, a graduate of Whittier Law School fought in the federal courts for ten years before he finally won a partial bankruptcy relief from his student loans.

Several federal appellate courts have softened the "undue hardship" standard somewhat: the Roth decision by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, the Seventh Circuit's Krieger decision, and the Eighth Circuit BAP Court's Fern opinion.

By and large, however, the bankruptcy courts have abdicated their role of providing honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start. No wonder the myth prevails that it is impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. And the Department of Education perpetuates this myth by opposing bankruptcy for people who are in severe distress, like the quadriplegic in the Myhre case.

Now we are enduring the Trump presidency. Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, has a nasty disposition toward student-loan debtors. She is busily dismantling the Obama administration's modest initiatives to rein in the corrupt for-profit college industry. The Republican dominated House Education Committee recently released a bill that would do away with all student--loan forgiveness programs. And a bill has just been introduced to protect attorneys from being sued for engaging in unfair debt collection.

America's financial industry, cheered on by the business news channels, chirp the Panglossian notion that Americans are living in the best of all possible worlds. The stock market soars ever skyward, and the economist says we have virtually reached full employment. The economy is growing at a healthy rate, and everyone is becoming wealthier.

But that's bullshit. The reality is this: millions of Americans are living day to day, burdened by consumer debt they can't repay. Student-loan indebtedness now exceeds accumulated credit card debt and car loans. Our Congress, our President, our Secretary of Education, and our courts are indifferent to the stark reality that we are constructing a society very much like Dickensian England.

Justice, Johnny Cash assures us, will eventually be restored. "That old wheel is gonna roll around once more. When it does it will even up the score." I hope Johnny is right. It will be a good sign if DeVos is forced from the Education Secretary's job and publicly disgraced. 

Don't give in; that old wheel is gonna roll around again.

References

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

Matthew Desmond. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.

Fern v. Fedloan Servicing563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. BAP 2017).

Lamento v. U.S. Department of Education, 520 B.R. 667 (N.D. Ohio 2014).

Lockhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 142 (2005). 

Krieger v. Educational Credit Management Corporation713 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. B.A.P 2013).


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

Steve Rhode. Proposed Law Will Make it More Likely Debtors Will be Sued Faster if in n Collections. Get Out of Debt Guy (blog), January 18, 2018.
Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2013).

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


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

PAYE and REPAYE: Long-term student loan repayment plans are a bad option for older student-loan debtors

You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it.

Tennessee Williams

President Obama's Department of Education is pushing distressed student-loan debtors into long-term income-based repayment plans. Five million people are in them now, and DOE hopes to enroll two million more by the end of next year.  Without a doubt, DOE will reach this goal. In fact, I predict at least 10 million people will be enrolled in long-term repayment plans within four years.

To advance this goal, the Obama administration launched two new income-based repayment programs: PAYE and REPAYE. These are the most generous of the government's eight income-based repayment plans. PAYE and REPAYE allow debtors to make payments equal to ten percent of their adjusted gross income for 20 years. At the end of that time, any unpaid debt is forgiven, although debtors may be forced to pay federal income tax on the forgiven portion of their loans.

As I have argued repeatedly, long-term income-based repayment plans are nothing more than a cynical scheme to hide the magnitude of the student-loan crisis.  By lowering monthly payments, the Feds hope to keep the student-loan default rate down even though most people in these programs are making payments so low that they will never pay off their student loans.

Nevertheless, I understand why debtors are signing up for these plans. If they've had their loans in deferment for any considerable length of time, their loan balances will have ballooned to double the amount they borrowed or more because of accrued interest. Once that happens, they will never be able to pay off their student loans over the conventional 10--year repayment term.  In short, people with large loan balances and low-paying jobs have no choice--they are forced to enter 20- or 25-year repayment plans in order to avoid default.  

But long-term repayment plans are a terrible option for older student-loan debtors. People in their forties, fifties and sixties need to maximize their retirement savings in order to be able to retire with dignity; and most of them of them can't do that if they are making student-loan payments equal to  10 or 15 percent of their annual income.

In fact, the evidence is mounting that the baby boomer generation is not ready for retirement; and millions are facing dire poverty if they lose their jobs. A recent article in the Star Tribune reported that two thirds of households in the 55-64 age group have savings that equal less than their annual income and one third have no savings at all.

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement account savings among households in the 55-64 age range is only $14,500! Due to the recent recession and stagnant wages, millions of Americans have been forced to cash out their retirement accounts just to meet daily living expenses. More than 40 percent of Americans have elected to take Social Security benefits early in recent years because they need the cash, even though early participation reduces annual benefits by 25 percent.

Obviously, the last thing financially strapped Americans need as they grow older is a 20-year obligation to contribute a percentage of their income to pay off student loans.  Although long-term repayment plans can be defended for people who enroll in them when they are young, they are a disaster for people who sign up for PAYE or REPAYE or the six other income-based repayment plans when they are in their forties or even older.

But the government  and the student-loan creditors insist on pushing student-loan debtors into these plans regardless of their age.  For example, in the Halverson case, decided in 2009, Educational Credit Management Corporation argued that Steven Halverson should enter a 25-year income-based retirement plan even though he was 65 years old, had chronic health problems, and had an income of only about $13 an hour.  (Fortunately, a Minnesota bankruptcy judge was sympathetic to Mr. Halverson's plight and discharged his student-loan debt.)

And in the Stevenson case, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge insisted that a woman in her fifties sign up for a long-term income-based repayment plan even though she had a record of homelessness and was living on only $1,000 a month.

Perhaps most famously, ECMC hounded Janet Roth through the courts all the way to the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, heartlessly arguing that Roth should be on an income-based repayment plan to pay off more than $90,000 in student-loan debt even though she was 68 years old, had  chronic health problems and was living entirely off her Social Security income of $780 a month.

As a matter of public policy, the federal government simply must stop pressuring student-loan debtors who are in their forties or older into long-term repayment plans because this practice is making it impossible for these people to prepare for retirement.

We should occasionally remind ourselves why the federal student-loan program was inaugerated in the first place. The program's sole purpose is to enable people to get postsecondary education that will improve their lives.  

But for millions of Americans, the federal student-loan program has driven them to the brink of indigence. And if they are forced to make loan payments until they are in their sixties, their seventies, or their eighties, we will have created a class of elderly debtors who will spend their final years in poverty and want.  

In short, no one who is 40 years old or older should be forced into a 20- or 25-year student-loan repayment plan,  No one.  Older student-loan debtors who are otherwise eligible for bankruptcy relief should be able to shed their student-loan debt in the bankruptcy courts rather than be saddled with monthly student loan payments that will extend into their retirement years.


References

Bob Brenzing. AP Poll: Many take Social Security before full retirement, May 26, 2016.Fox News 17. Accessible at http://fox17online.com/2016/05/26/ap-poll-many-take-social-security-before-full-retirement/

 Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney. The Uncomfortable Truth About American Wages. Brooking Institution, October 23, 2012. Accessible at http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/10/22-wages-greenstone-looney

Katy Read. The real story about retirement: Millions of baby boomers face financial crisis.  Star Tribune, Ocrober 21, 2015.  Accessible at http://www.startribune.com/the-real-story-about-retirement-millions-of-baby-boomers-face-financial-crisis/334718191/

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

Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 463 B.R. 586 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011).

John F. Wasik. Social Security At 62? Let's Run the Numbers. New York Times, May 14, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/15/business/retirementspecial/social-security-at-62-lets-run-the-numbers.html



Monday, March 21, 2016

Student Loan Bankruptcy and Educational Credit Management Corporation: Who pays the ECMC lawyers?


I know quite a bit about the student loan crisis. After studying both governmental and nongovernmental documents, I know the student-loan default rate is much higher than the government reports. According to the Department of Eduction, the three-year default rate is about 10 percent, but the people who stop paying on their loans is at least 30 percent.  And among people who attended for-profit colleges, the default rate is at least 50 percent.

I also know a lot about college borrowers who try to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Shedding student loans through bankruptcy is difficult, but over the past three years or so, a number of bankruptcy courts have ruled in favor of college-loan debtors, showing both compassion and common sense.

But I dont' know who pays the lawyers for the student-debt collection agencies that fight student debtors in the bankruptcy courts or how much those lawyers get paid. 

In particular, who paid the lawyers for Educational Credit Management Corporation, which opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on  Social Security income of only  $774 a month?  And ECMC lawyers didn't just fight Ms. Roth in the bankruptcy court, it fought her all the way to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And everybody knew that Jane Roth's income was so low that she would have paid nothing on her student loans even if she lost her case. 

Who paid the ECMC lawyers who appealed a bankruptcy decision in favor of George and Melanie Johnson, a couple with two school-age children who lost their home in a foreclosure proceeding?

And who ultimately paid the tab for ECMC to fight bankruptcy relief for Janice Stevenson, a woman in her 50s with a history of homelessness who was living on only at thousand dollars a month?

A New York Times article reported that ECMC has been accused of ruthless loan-collection tactics, and I would say ruthless is putting it mildly. And take my word for it, ECMC lawyers aren't working for free.

To paraphrase the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, I know a little about student loans and bankruptcy, and baby I can guess the rest. I think the taxpayers are paying  ECMC's lawyers--either directly or indirectly. 

In a letter issued last July, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Lynne Mahaffie wrote that student-loan debt collectors should take cost into account when deciding when to oppose bankruptcy discharge for distressed college-loan borrowers. But if ECMC is absorbing the cost of attorney fees to fight Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and Mr. and Mrs.Johnson, why would the Department of Education care what ECMC is spending in its collection efforts? 

Certainly ECMC wasn't taking cost into account when it dragged Janet Roth through the federal courts for several years.  There could have been no monetary gain to the taxpayers in fighting bankruptcy relief for Ms. Roth.

In the months to come, we will see if DOE really meant it when it authorized Mahaffie to say that DOE and its student-loan debt collectors would not fight bankruptcy discharge of student loans when it is not cost effective to do so.

My guess is this. ECMC will continue harassing student-loan debtors in the bankruptcy courts as long as its lawyers get paid for doing so.  So if Lynn Mahaffie really meant what she said in that 2015 letter, DOE needs to change the system whereby ECMC lawyers get rich hounding people like Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and George and Melanie Johnson.

References

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

Lynn Mahaffie. Undue Hardship Discharge of Title IV Loans in Bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings, July 7, 2015, GEN 15-13.  Accesible at https://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN1513.pdf

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013). Accessible at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/bap/2013/04/16/RothV%20ECMC%20opinion-FINAL%20AZ-11-1233.pdf




Student Loan Bankruptcy and Educational Credit Management Corporation: Who pays the ECMC lawyers?

    Say I know a little
    I know a little about it
    I know a little
    I know a little 'bout it
    I know a little 'bout love
    And baby I can guess the rest.

Lynyrd Skynyrd
I Know A Little

I know quite a bit about the student loan crisis. After studying both governmental and nongovernmental documents, I know the student-loan default rate is much higher than the government reports. According to the Department of Eduction, the three-year default rate is about 10 percent, but the people who stop paying on their loans is at least 30 percent.  And among people who attended for-profit colleges, the default rate is at least 50 percent.

I also know a lot about college borrowers who try to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Shedding student loans through bankruptcy is difficult, but over the past three years or so, a number of bankruptcy courts have ruled in favor of college-loan debtors, showing both compassion and common sense.

But I dont' know who pays the lawyers for the student-debt collection agencies that fight student debtors in the bankruptcy courts or how much those lawyers get paid. 

In particular, who paid the lawyers for Educational Credit Management Corporation, which opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on  Social Security income of only  $774 a month?  And ECMC lawyers didn't just fight Ms. Roth in the bankruptcy court, it fought her all the way to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And everybody knew that Jane Roth's income was so low that she would have paid nothing on her student loans even if she lost her case. 

Who paid the ECMC lawyers who appealed a bankruptcy decision in favor of George and Melanie Johnson, a couple with two school-age children who lost their home in a foreclosure proceeding?

And who ultimately paid the tab for ECMC to fight bankruptcy relief for Janice Stevenson, a woman in her 50s with a history of homelessness who was living on only at thousand dollars a month?

A New York Times article reported that ECMC has been accused of ruthless loan-collection tactics, and I would say ruthless is putting it mildly. And take my word for it, ECMC lawyers aren't working for free.

To paraphrase the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, I know a little about student loans and bankruptcy, and baby I can guess the rest. I think the taxpayers are paying the fees of ECMC's lawyers--either directly or indirectly. 

In a letter issued last July, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Lynne Mahaffie wrote that student-loan debt collectors should take cost into account when deciding when to oppose bankruptcy discharge for distressed college-loan borrowers. But if ECMC is absorbing the cost of attorney fees to fight Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and Mr. and Mrs.Johnson, why would the Department of Education care what ECMC is spending in its collection efforts? 

Certainly ECMC wasn't taking cost into account when it dragged Janet Roth through the federal courts for several years.  There could have been no monetary gain to the taxpayers in fighting bankruptcy relief for Ms. Roth.

In the months to come, we will see if DOE really meant it when it authorized Mahaffie to say that DOE and its student-loan debt collectors would not fight bankruptcy discharge of student loans when it is not cost effective to do so.

My guess is this. ECMC will continue harassing student-loan debtors in the bankruptcy courts as long as its lawyers get paid for doing so.  So if Lynn Mahaffie really meant what she said in that 2015 letter, DOE needs to change the system whereby ECMC lawyers get rich hounding people like Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and George and Melanie Johnson.

References

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

Lynn Mahaffie. Undue Hardship Discharge of Title IV Loans in Bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings, July 7, 2015, GEN 15-13.  Accesible at https://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN1513.pdf

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013). Accessible at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/bap/2013/04/16/RothV%20ECMC%20opinion-FINAL%20AZ-11-1233.pdf




Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Distressed Student-Loan Debtors in the Bankruptcy Courts: What Can You Do To Improve Your Odds of Obtaining A Discharge?

Federal bankruptcy courts have decided a number of cases over the years involving student-loan debtors seeking to wipe out their student loans by filing for bankruptcy. In some cases, the courts have discharged people's student loan debt;  and in other cases, the courts have refused a discharge. And the results aren't consistent.

For example, in the Hedlund case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted partial relief to Michael Hedlund, a relatively young law-school  graduate who had failed to pass the bar exam. But recently, in the Tetzlaff case, the Eighth Circuit refused to grant relief to an older law-school graduate who had also failed the bar and who had a much larger student-loan debt than Mr. Hedlund.

Likewise, just last week, an Alabama bankruptcy court refused to discharge student loan debt owed by a grandfather who had borrowed money back in the 1990s for a degree program he never completed even though the man was living with his wife on $2,000 a month and was broke enough to have his other debts discharged. But another Alabama bankruptcy judge discharged the student-loan debt of a woman in her 40s who had a pretty good job.

In this essay, I am going to try to give at least some partial answers to two questions:

  • First, when will the Department of Education and its loan collection agencies agree to allow a student-loan debtor to discharge student-loan debt in bankruptcy?  In other words, how bad does a debtor's financial situation need to be before DOE will tell a bankruptcy court that it will not oppose the discharge of student loan debt?
  • Second, what factors seem to weigh in the debtor's favor when trying to discharge student loans in a bankruptcy court proceeding?
I. DOE and Student-Loan Creditors Oppose Bankruptcy Relief For Nearly Everyone

Regarding the first question, DOE stated in a July 2015 letter that it would not oppose bankruptcy discharge in certain situations, and it listed 11 factors it would consider when deciding whether or not to agree to a discharge. Those factors are what you might suppose and include the debtor's age, health status and long-term economic prospects.  Supposedly, DOE won't oppose bankruptcy discharge for elderly people living on Social Security or people with very serious health problems.

In practice, however, DOE and its debt-collection agencies oppose bankruptcy relief for nearly everyone--even people who are ill and flat broke.  DOE's standard line is that everyone should be forced into a long-term income-based repayment plan, even when it is clear the debtor is so poor that that he or she will never be required to pay anything.

For example, in the Myhre case, DOE opposed bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic man who was gainfully employed but whose expenses exceeded his income because he had to employ a full-time caregiver to feed and dress him and drive him back and forth to work.  A quadriplegic, for God's sake! Fortunately, the court rejected DOE's arguments and ruled for Mr. Myhre.

In the Roth case, Educational Credit Management Corporation (DOE's most ruthless collection agent) opposed bankruptcy relief for Jane Roth, a 68-year old woman with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month.  Put her in a 25-year repayment plan, ECMC argued, even though it was apparent that Roth would never be able to pay back her student loans.  

In the Abney case, DOE opposed relief for Michael Abney, a 40-year old man who was so poor he couldn't afford a car and road a bicycle to work. Abney was living on $1200 a month, and the bankruptcy court ruled that his long-term economic prospects were not likely to improve any time soon.  Put him on a long-term repayment plan, DOE insisted; but the bankruptcy court sided with Mr. Abney and discharged his student-loan debt.

And just last week, ECMC persuaded an Illinois bankruptcy court to keep Brenda Butler in a 25-year repayment plan that she won't complete until 2037--42 years after she graduated from college! And by the way, Butler was unemployed at the time of her adversary proceeding.

So if you read DOE's July 2015 letter, just ignore it. In spite of representations by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Lynn Mahaffie that DOE won't oppose bankruptcy relief in some instances, in reality, DOE DOESN'T WANT ANYONE TO GET BANKRUPTCY RELIEF.  DOE wants virtually everyone in a 20- or 25-year repayment plan--even if that means people will be saddled with student-loan debt into their 90s.

II. What Can You Do To Increase Your Odds of Obtaining a Discharge of Your Student-Loan Debt?

Now let's turn to the second question: What factors weigh in a person's favor when trying to discharge student-loan debt in a bankruptcy court? There have been several scholarly articles on this topic--Rafael Pardo's work is especially helpful. By and large, the research tells us that people with serious long-term health issues are more likely to obtain relief than people in good health. And it helps to have a competent lawyer.

But a friend of mine has gone to the trouble of calling some of the people who have tried to discharge their student-loan debt in bankruptcy over the past two yeas, and he's briefed me on what he learned. This is what I've gleaned from these conversations:

First, it helps to prepare well in advance of filing your adversary complaint and to be able to document all student-loan payments that you made and all medical issues that are relevant. In my opinion, it makes sense to file a complaint that contains a lot of detail.  Filing a detailed complaint may help educate the bankruptcy judge about your circumstances early in the litigation instead of on the day of trial.

Second, if you are representing yourself and don't have an attorney, be wary of agreeing to anything the creditor's attorney suggests. For example, in a recent case, a Department of Education attorney persuaded a debtor to agree that it would not be an "undue hardship" to pay back his student loans, even though the guy was in bankruptcy for that very reason.  The debtor wasn't aware that by agreeing to what the attorney suggested, he had lost his case. And in fact, case law would have supported an argument that indeed it would have been an undue hardship to repay his student loans. 

Third, it is good to have an attorney, but your attorney must know the law--especially the recent cases that have ruled more compassionately toward student-loan debtors. In another recent case--a real heart breaker, an unemployed woman in her 40s, who had made good faith efforts to pay on her student loans for 20 years, got locked into a 25-year repayment plan that won't conclude until she is in her 60s. Apparently, the judge was never made aware that courts have granted relief to several people within the last 2 years whose financial situations were far better than hers.

Whether or not you have an attorney, you must know the law. Find out whether you are in a jurisdiction that follows the three-pronged Brunner test for determining whether it would be an undue hardship for a debtor to pay back student loans or whether you are in a jurisdiction that has adopted the "totality of circumstances" test.  

You should be aware that most judges won't require you to have lived on bread and water in order to qualify for a discharge of your student loans. For example, several courts have rejected creditors' arguments that student-loan debtors are not living frugally if they have a cell phone, an Internet account, or a pet. If your creditor makes that argument (and it will), it would be good to be able to cite those cases.  

You should be able to tell the judge that several courts in the Brunner jurisdictions have refused to interpret the Brunner test harshly and some have even criticized the test. You should point out those cases to your judge in your trial brief.

Finally, you should know the cases in which judges have refused to force distressed student-loan debtors into 25-year repayment plans. A couple of courts have pointed out the psychological stress that a long-term repayment plan can have on a person. It is essential for you to be able to educate your judge about court decisions that have rejected the creditors' stock argument, which is to force everyone into long-term repayment plans.

III. Remember--Your Judge May Be Sympathetic

Finally, you should know that there factors at work that are beyond a student-loan debtor's control--the temperament of the bankruptcy judge.  I think many of these judges are inclined to be sympathetic toward student-loan debtors--many of whom have been crushed not by their loans but by the creditors' collection fees and accruing interest. I believe many of these judges want to help you. After all, the bankruptcy judges know that the bankruptcy courts exist in order to give honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start.

And it is also evident that some bankruptcy judges are willing to do a lot of research and to write impressively reasoned decisions in favor of student-loan debtors. The judge in Acosta-Coniff v. ECMC , the judge in Johnson v. Sallie Mae, and the judge in Abney v. Department of Education went to a lot of trouble to write decisions in favor of student-loan debtors that will have a good chance of being upheld by the appellate courts if a creditor appeals. But you can help your judge tremendously if you can point out recent cases in your trial brief that have been decided recently in favor of student-loan debtors whose cases are similar to yours. 

Trying to discharge your student loans in bankruptcy is a daunting challenge. You will be opposed by squadrons of creditors' attorneys who know the law and who show no mercy.  And if you win, the creditors are likely to appeal, hoping they will wear you down and you will simply give up.

But I believe in my heart that the winds of justice are blowing through the bankruptcy courts and that many bankruptcy judges are willing to help you if you have a good case.  But, to repeat myself,  you will help your judge tremendously if you educate the judges to the recent favorable decisions--Roth, Krieger, and more than a dozen others.  

If you are a distressed student-loan debtor with a reasonable case for discharge, go to the bankruptcy court and plead for  justice. You have a good chance of getting the justice you deserve. 

As they sometimes say in the Southwest, vaya con Dios.






Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bear Baiters: Creditors' Lawyers Make Sport of Distressed Student-Loan Debtors Who Stumble Into the Bankruptcy Courts

Bear-baiting is a blood sport  involving the worrying or tormenting (baiting) of bears. 

Wikipedia

Bear baiting is an ancient sport in which spectators sit in an arena and watch dogs attack a chained bear. Traditional bear baiting is outlawed in the United States, but a modern variation is still legal and practiced all over America.

In the new format, student-loan debtors substitute for the bear, lawyers and judges take the place of vicious dogs, and the venue has been changed from sporting arenas to the bankruptcy courts.

Here are some bear-bating examples. Jane Roth, a 68-year old woman with chronic health problems, filed for bankruptcy to discharge more than $90,000 in student-loan debt--almost three times more than she actually borrowed. At the time of her bankruptcy filing, Roth was living on $774 a month, and it was clear she would never pay back the 90 grand she owed. 

Educational Credit Management (ECMC), her main creditor, opposed a bankruptcy discharge and litigated the matter all the way to the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel. It must have been great fun for the lawyers, and I'm sure they were well paid for harrying Ms. Roth. Unfortunately for ECMC, the Ninth Circuit's BAP put an end to the fun, and discharged Ms. Roth's student-loan debt, ruling it would be futile to put her in a long-term loan repayment plan.

And here is another example. Janice Stevenson, a woman in her 50s, filed for bankruptcy to discharge $114,000 in student-loan debt, far more than she originally borrowed. Stevenson had a record of homelessness, and at the time of her bankruptcy proceeding, she was living in publicly-subsidized housing on an income of $1,000 a month, which included short-term unemployment benefits.

Judge Joan Feeney, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge, refused to discharge Ms. Stevenson's student loans in bankruptcy. Instead, the judge concluded that Ms. Stevenson was a candidate for a long-term income-based repayment plan, a plan that would obligate her to make student-loan payments for 25 years--a half century after she took our her first student loan!

In my view, the attorneys in the Roth case, the Stevenson case, and dozens of other student-loan bankruptcy cases, are bear baiters. Debtors stand utterly defenseless in the bankruptcy courts--many without  lawyers--like chained bears, while heartless attorneys for the Department of Education, ECMC, or another student-loan creditor make sport of their plight. The creditors' attorneys get paid and go home to eat nice dinners and dream of their next exotic vacation.  And all too often, student-loan debtors walk out of the bankruptcy courts facing almost a lifetime of indebtedness that they cannot discharge.

So this is the national situation:  Over 40 million people owe money on student loans, and at least 20 million are unable to pay it back. Seven million have defaulted, while others are delinquent or in deferment plans or long-term income-based repayment plans.

Millions of people are their seeing loan balances grow due to accruing interest, penalties, and collection fees. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to owe two or even three times what they borrowed. Most of these people deserve relief, and the only place they will find it is in the bankruptcy courts.

Fortunately, a few compassionate bankruptcy judges and federal appellate courts are ruling in favor of student-loan debtors and granting them relief from their crushing debt.  The Roth case, in particular, is hugely important, because the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel applied principles of equity to discharge Jane Roth's debt.

But only time will tell whether the bankruptcy courts will be places where honest but unfortunate debtors can find relief or whether they will continue to be bear-baiting arenas. 



Image result for bear baiting


References

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

Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 463 B.R. 586 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Department of Education's Lynn Mahaffie wrote a disingenuous letter outlining when the Department of Education will not oppose bankruptcy discharge for student-loan debtors under the Undue Hardship rule

The Department of Education's Lynn Mahaffie issued a letter last July outlining when DOE and its debt collectors will not oppose bankruptcy discharge for student-loan debtors.  In fact, Mahaffie's letter is disingenuous.

Reading Mahaffie's letter, you might think DOE and its debt-collecting lackeys would not oppose a bankruptcy discharge for student-loan debtors who are in truly distressing circumstances or when it would be pointless to try to collect the debt. But you would be wrong.

In fact, DOE and its debt collectors oppose bankruptcy discharge for nearly everyone.

Here are some examples:

In Myhre v. Department of Education, DOE opposed bankruptcy discharge for a quadriplegic student-loan debtor who was working almost full time but could not make enough money to pay his living expenses, including the cost of a full-time caregiver.

In Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, ECMC, perhaps DOE's most ruthless debt collector, opposed a bankruptcy discharge for a 68-year-old woman with chronic health issues who was living on a Social Security check of less than $800 a month.

In Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, decided after Mahaffie's letter was issued, DOE opposed a bankruptcy discharge for a man living on less than $1200 a month and who rode a bicycle to work because he couldn't afford a car.  This poor guy was making child-support payments that almost equaled his take-home pay and had lost his home to foreclosure. In fact, this man's situation was so desperate that he lived for a time in the cab of of one of his employer's trucks. And DOE demanded that he be put in a 25-year repayment plan!

Mahaffie's letter listed several factors for determining when to oppose a student-loan debtor's bankruptcy discharge, including the debtor's age and health status. But DOE is garnishing the Social Security checks of 150,000 elderly people and fights bankruptcy relief without regard to a student-loan debtor's health status. Hey, if DOE fights bankruptcy discharge for a quadriplegic, it fights it for everyone.

And Mayaffie also indicated that DOE and student-loan creditors wouldn't fight bankruptcy discharge if litigation costs outweighed the likely benefits. But in Kelly v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, ECMC chased a student-loan debtor through the federal courts for seven years!

Frankly, Mahaffie's letter is insincere. Contrary to the representations in her letter, the Department of Education and Educational Credit Management Corporation fight nearly every student-loan bankruptcy with almost desperate ferocity.  It knows that millions of people are entitled to bankruptcy relief from their student-loan debt under standards being laid down by compassionate bankruptcy courts. And it knows if student-loan debtors start getting the relief to which they are entitled under basic principles of fairness and justice, the student loan program will collapse.


Picture of Lynn Mahaffie, Deputy Assistant Secy for Policy, Planning and Innovation, U.S. Dept of Education
Lynn Mahaffie, J.D.
DOE's Deputy Assistant Secretary wrote a disingenous letter

References

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

You can't win if you don't play: More people should attempt to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy

It's a mess, folks. Seven million people are currently in default on their student loans. Millions more have stopped making payments but aren't counted as defaulters because they obtained economic-hardship deferments, which are given out like candy.  Almost 4 million people are making payments under income-based repayment plans that can last as long as 25 years. Twenty-five years!

Why don't some of these overburdened student-loan debtors file for bankruptcy?  I'll tell you why. Most people believe it is impossible to obtain relief from their student loans in the bankruptcy courts.

But that's not true. Three years ago, Jason Iuliano published an empirical study of student-loan discharges under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" provision. This is what he found:

  • Nearly forty percent of people who attempted to discharge their student loans in the bankruptcy process obtained relief.
  • People who attempted to discharge their student loans without an attorney were as successful in obtaining bankruptcy relief as people who hired bankruptcy lawyers.
The problem, according to Iuliano, is not that it is impossible to obtain a discharge of student loans in bankruptcy. THE PROBLEM IS THAT MOST PEOPLE DON'T TRY.

In 2007, Iuliano reported, almost a quarter of a million people with student loans filed for bankruptcy (238,446 to be exact). Of that number, less than 300 even attempted to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Apparently they assumed that it would be useless to try.

Iuliano constructed a model for predicting which factors were most important in obtaining a student-loan discharge. He estimated that 69,000  student-loan debtors  who filed for bankruptcy in 2007 were good candidates for discharge if they had only applied for relief.

In other words, based on Iuliano's research, more insolvent student-loan debtors should be seeking to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy because a fair percentage are likely to be successful. But you can't win if you don't play. 

Iuliano's article was published in 2012 based on 2007 bankruptcy data. I think the percentage of successful student-loan discharges would be higher today than it was during the period Iuliano studied. Several recent bankruptcy court decisions show that at least some courts are beginning to view student-loan debtors with more compassion than courts once did.

In the Roth case, for example, the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel rejected a loan creditor's argument that Ms. Roth should be put in a 25-year repayment plan. "The law does not require a party to engage in futile acts," the court said.   Roth was a 68-year old woman with chronic health problems living on a Social Security check of less than $800 a month. It would be futile, not to mention callous, to put her on a 25-year income-based repayment plan.

Of course, the Department of Education and its student-loan debt collectors aggressively oppose student-loan discharge efforts in the vast majority of cases, often filing technical motions that make the  discharge process more expensive than necessary. I think  the creditors file these motions to discourage student-loan debtors who file adversary actions without the help of a lawyer. 

Of course, hiring a bankruptcy lawyer to fight the Department of Education can be expensive, and people in bankruptcy generally don't have the money to hire lawyers. Nevertheless, a lot more insolvent debtors should be trying to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy, even if they must do so without a lawyer.

And here are my suggestions for giving overburdened but honest student-loan debtors some bankruptcy relief:

1) Legal Aid clinics should get in the business of representing student-loan debtors. Legal aid clinics, including those that are attached to law schools, should have their attorneys become experts in bankruptcy law--especially the evolving law that relates to student loans; and the clinics should start representing student-loan debtors who seek to discharge their student loans in the bankruptcy courts.

2) Public interest organizations should develop free web sites that would provide useful information to people who are seeking to discharge their student-loans in bankruptcy without lawyers. The site should include sample pleadings and sample discovery motions, recent research on student-loan bankruptcies, recent court decisions, and sample briefs that could be used as models for debtors who are fighting the technical motions that DOE and the debt collectors file. 

Can you imagine the impact if 5,000 people tried to discharge their student loans in the bankruptcy courts rather than the mere 300 who tried in 2007? I think these people would find the bankruptcy courts are much more sympathetic than the debtors might have expected. More and more frequently, the bankruptcy judges are reviewing the details of these pathetic cases and seeing people who borrowed money in good faith to attend college and simply never made enough money to pay it back. Divorce, illness, unemployment, poor choices in deciding on a major, unscrupulous for-profit colleges--all kinds of unexpected things happened to people who simply wanted to get the training they needed to obtain better jobs so they could support their families and have better lives.

As I have said, the bankruptcy courts are becoming more and more sympathetic to these people.  But distressed student-loan debtors have got to ask for bankruptcy relief in order to get it.

References

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

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