Showing posts with label student loan bankruptcy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label student loan bankruptcy. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Coplin v. U.S. Dep't of Education: Bankruptcy court orders single mother of 4 disabled children to repay $222,000 in student loans

Heather Coplin graduated from University of Pacific's McGeorge law school in 2009 and gave birth to triplets that same year. The infants were born prematurely and all three suffer from profound disabilities. At age 8, one triplet is incontinent and requires an electric wheelchair for mobility. The other two triplets have muscular issues that impair their mobility. Two triplets have required shunts to drain spinal fluid.

Coplin also has a 15-year-old child who suffers from autism. He is six feet tall, weighs 340 pounds and engages in "anxiety-induced acting-out behavior." Coplin has called the police on several occasions to deal with her son's aggressiveness.

Coplin herself is bipolar and has made several suicide attempts.

Although Coplin graduated law school in 2009, she was unable to pass the state bar exam until 2012. She practiced law for a time and even established her own firm. She found, however, that family issues prevented her from working as an attorney. At time of trial, Coplin was a night-shift waitress at the Muckleshoot Casino

Coplin filed an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court to discharge almost half a million dollars in student-loan debt, some of it accruing interest at the rate of 10 percent. Navient, one of her creditors, agreed to discharge part of the debt, but three creditors opposed a discharge: ECMC, the U.S. Department of Education and University of the Pacific.

In a decision entered a few days ago, Judge Mary Jo Heston granted Coplin a partial discharge. Utilizing the three-pronged  Brunner test, Judge Heston concluded Coplin only met two prongs.

First, Coplin met the first prong, which required her to show she could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.  She also met a second prong, requiring her to show she had handled her student loans in good faith.

Nevertheless, Judge Heston did not grant Coplin a full discharge. Coplin had about $1850 in discretionary monthly income, the judge pointed out.  She could put that amount toward paying off her student loans. Judge Heston ruled that Coplin could pay back $222,000 over a ten-year period; and thus she only granted Coplin a partial discharge.

It should be pointed out that the only reason Coplin had any discretionary income was that she was living in her fiancee's home rent free. In addition, I don't think the bankruptcy judge accurately estimated Coplin's ongoing medical expenses. Coplin said she visited doctors 6 or 7 times a week due to her children's medical issues.

These are my reflections on the Coplin decision:

First, I was struck by Coplin's strong work ethic. As Judge Heston noted, Coplin had worked continuously at a variety of jobs since graduating from law school. She practiced law, sold real estate, worked as a delivery driver, and finally wound up working the night shift as a casino waitress.  No one can say she didn't do her best to feed her family.

Second, I was shocked by the ruthlessness of Coplin's creditors. The creditors--including the U.S. Department of Education--argued Coplin should be denied a discharge because she had not lived frugally.  They pointed to the fact that she occasionally dined at fast food restaurants, had cable television, and had taken a modest vacation.

Is Betsy DeVos' Department of Education saying that a casino waitress with four disabled children is living extravagantly because she occasionally eats at McDonald's? Yes, it is.

Finally, I was astonished by the arrogance of University of the Pacific, where Coplin went to law school. One would think the university would be embarrassed by the fact that one of its law graduates racked up half a million dollars in student-loan debt (including accrued interest), took three years to pass the bar exam and was working as a waitress 8 years after obtaining her law degree. But no--UP wants its money--at 10 percent interest.

In sum, I found the Coplin decision disheartening. If a waitress with four disabled children can't obtain a complete discharge of her student loans in a bankruptcy court then it is difficult to see how any student-loan debtor is entitled to bankruptcy relief. God help us.

Muckleshoot Casino, where attorney Heather Coplin works as a waitress

References

Coplin v. U.S. Department of Education,  Case No. 13-46108, Adversary No. 16-04122, 2017 WL 6061580 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. December 6, 2017).

Saturday, November 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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



Saturday, 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, June 15, 2017

Federal court orders the Department of Education to rule on Everest College student's request for debt cancellation: Sarah Dieffenbacher v. Betsy DeVos

Dieffenbacher v. U.S. Department of Education: A Student Borrower seeks debt relief on grounds of fraud

From 2007 to 2012, Sarah Dieffenbacher attended Everest College-Ontario Metro, a for-profit college located in Ontario, California. She took out $50,000 in federal student loans to fund her studies.

In March 2015, Dieffenbacher filed a "borrower defense" application with the U.S. Department of Education, petitioning to have her loans cancelled on the grounds that Everest had engaged in fraudulent conduct in violation of California law.

In August 2015, Dieffenbacher defaulted on her loans. Educational Credit Management Corporation, her loan servicer, sent her a notice stating that it intended to begin garnishing her wages.

Dieffenbacher filed a timely objection and a request for a hearing. This objection consisted of a 29-page letter accompanied by 254 pages of exhibits. These exhibits included Diefenbacher's sworn statement and records from the California Attorney General's Office showing documented misconduct by Everest and its parent company, Corinthian Colleges.

On January 20, 2017, Dieffenbacher's attorney received a letter from the Department of Education stating that DOE was denying Dieffenbacher's objection to having her wages garnished. DOE said its decision was conclusive and that Dieffenbacher's only recourse was to file a lawsuit in federal court.

This Dieffenbacher did. In her lawsuit, Dieffenbacher claimed that DOE's decision was arbitrary and capricious and violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Without admitting fault, DOE filed a motion to remand Dieffenbacher's case back to the Department so that its decision could be "reconsidered and re-issued in a way that would not be arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law."

Judge Virginia Phillips' decision

Last week, Judge Virginia Phillips, a California federal judge, denied DOE's request for a voluntary remand. In Judge Phillips' view, the Department "[had] not established a substantial or legitimate concern guiding its request for a remand."

The judge pointed out that Dieffenbacher's application for loan forgiveness had been pending for more than two years and that the Department had made contradictory arguments about what it intended to do.

Indeed, Judge Phillips' suggested that the Department of Education was attempting to get Dieffenbacher out of court so that it could garnish her wages. "The Department's request for remand appears to be an attempt to evade judicial review so that it can retain the ability to garnish [Dieffenbacher's] wages without a conclusive ruling as to the enforceability of her loans," the judge observed. "Under such circumstances, the remand request appears both frivolous and in bad faith" [emphasis supplied].

Judge Phillips concluded her opinion by ordering DOE to rule on Dieffenbacher's loan cancellation application within 90 days. If the Department fails to comply, the judge added, she would proceed to hear Dieffenbacher's claims on the merits.

The Dieffenbacher case: More Evidence of the Department of Education's Stall Tactics

The Dieffenbacher case is the latest example of the Department of Education's efforts to avoid dealing with student borrowers' legitimate applications for loan forgiveness.

In the Price case, which I wrote about recently, DOE took six years to rule on a University of Phoenix graduate's application for loan forgiveness based on her claim that Phoenix falsely certified that she had a high school diploma when she began her studies. Ultimately, DOE disallowed the claim. A federal court in Texas countermanded DOE's ruling and discharged the debt.

Last January, DOE sent a letter to 23,000 former students at Corinthian Colleges, assuring them that their loans had been approved for cancellation and that the loans would be forgiven within the next 60 to 120 days. Almost six months later, DOE has not kept its promise, which prompted a protest letter from 19 states' attorneys general.
So what's going on?

I think Betsy DeVos's DOE pencil pushers have added up the costs associated with discharging students loans under DOE's own rules and regulations and have found those costs to be enormous. DOE is trying to put the brakes on its administrative loan forgiveness process. The Department announced this week that it is rewriting the "borrow defense" regulations that Dieffenbacher relied on.

BUT IT IS TOO LATE. DeVos's efforts to slow down the loan forgiveness process will not withstand scrutiny in the federal courts, as the Price case and the Dieffenbacher case demonstrate.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in a recent report that eight million student borrowers are in default, with nearly 1.1 million defaulting in 2016 alone. As CFPB pointed out, people are defaulting at the rate of 2 borrowers every minute!

Two things must be done to bring the federal student loan program under control. First, the federal government must stop sending student aid dollars to for-profit colleges, which have shockingly high student-loan default rates.

Second, Congress must amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student borrowers to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other unsecured consumer debt.

But Betsy DeVos's Department of Education refuses to face reality while it stalls for time. In the end, this approach is going to enrage millions of student borrowers. These borrowers are also voters, and they will vote for any politician who promises real debt relief to the legions of student borrowers who will never pay back their loans.

References


Dieffenbacher v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., ED CV 17-342-VAP (KK) (C.D. Cal. June 9, 2017).

Seth Frotman & Rich Williams. New data documents a disturbing cycle of defaults for struggling student loan borrowers. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, May 15, 2017.

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Court Orders Education Department to End Delay in Ruling on Loan Discharge. Inside Higher ED, June 9, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Education Department to hit pause on two primary Obama regulations aimed at for-profitsInside Higher ED, June 15, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. State AGs Want Action on Student Loan DischargeInside Higher Ed, June 6, 2017.

Lisa Madigan, Illinois Attorney General. Letter to Betsy DeVos, US. Secretary of Education, June 5, 2017.

Price v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 209 Fed. Supp. 3d 925 (S.D. Tex. 2016). [Link is to U.S. Magistrate's opinion, which was affirmed by a U.S. District Judge.]
 


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Hofstra Law School Graduate incurs nearly one million dollars in debt: Dufrane v. Navient Solutions

Who holds the record for accumulating the most debt while going to college and law school? I don't know, but it might be Scott Dufrane.

Mr. Dufrane attended Thomas Jefferson Law School and graduated from the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in 2009. He financed his undergraduate and legal education with student loans, and by the time he received his law degree, he had incurred debt of nearly a million dollars--or more specifically, $900,000.

Dufrane filed for bankruptcy in 2015. At that time  he owed the U.S. Department of Education approximately $400,000; and he owed various private creditors about $500,000. 

A short time after filing his bankruptcy petition, Dufrane filed an adversary complaint in an effort to discharge his private loans. In his complaint, he argued that the private loans fell outside the protection of the "undue hardship" rule and were dischargeable.

Dufrane owed SunTrust Bank about $90,000, and SunTrust moved to dismiss Dufrane's adversary complaint on the grounds that the SunTrust loans were protected by 11 U.S.C. sec. 523(a)(8) and could not be discharged unless Dufrane met the "undue hardship" standard.

But Dufrane had an answer to SunTrust's argument.

He argued that the private loans were not "qualified student loans" under 11 U.S.C. sec. 528(a) (8) and could be discharged like any other nonsecured debt.  Dufrane said that the private lenders had solicited him to borrow money while he was in school without any inquiry "regarding need, cost of tuition, or cost of any other education-related expense." In addition, the private lenders' solicitations "generally stated that the money could be used for anything, and that it would be disbursed directly to [Dufrane]" and not through any school.

Moreover, Dufrane alleged, all the private loan money was disbursed directly to him "without any input, knowledge or approval of the Financial Aid Office . . ."

Judge Peter Carroll, a California bankruptcy judge, agreed with Dufrane and ruled that the private loans were not the type of loan that Congress intended to exclude from bankruptcy relief.   Judge Carroll acknowledged that federal courts were divided on this issue, but he agreed with courts that interpreted the law in harmony with Dufrane's position. Therefore, the judge denied SunTrust's motion to dismiss. Under the rationale of Judge Carroll's ruling, it seems possible that all $500,000 of Carroll's private loan debt will ultimately discharged.

What is the significance of the Dufrane decision?

First, as Judge Carroll pointed out, the federal courts are in disagreement about whether some private student loans are subject to the "undue hardship" rule, and this controversy may ultimately go to the Supreme Court. For now, however, student borrowers who responded to bank solicitations by taking out private loans and who received the money directly have an argument that those loans are dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other consumer loan.

Second, the Dufrane case illustrates the recklessness of student-loan creditors--both the federal government and private banks.  It was insane for the Department of Education to loan Dufrane $400,000 for college and lawschool studies.  And of course it was insane for private lenders to loan Dufrane $500,000 while he was in law school.

Almost no one who accumulates nearly a million dollars in debt to get a college degree and a law degree will ever be able to pay back that amount of money.  Hofstra's law school is ranked 118 on the list of best law schools published by U.S. News & World Report. But even if Hofstra had graduated from Yale Law School at the top of his class, it is unlikely he would have obtained a job that would allow him to pay back $900,000.

Millions of Americans are struggling with  student-loan debt. Last year, student borrowers were defaulting at an average rate of 3,000 a day

The Department of Education is urging borrowers to enroll in income driven repayment plans (IDRs), but the Government Accountability Office reported last December that about half of a sample of people who signed up for IDRs failed to recertify their income as the program requires (p. 36). It seems obvious that IDRs are no magic bullet for the student-loan crisis.

Bankruptcy relief is the only viable option for people whose student loans are out of control. Last month, Congressmen John Delaney (D-Maryland) and John Katko (R-New York) filed a bill to make student-loan debt dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured loan.  This bill is unlikely to become law in this Congressional session; but someday, Congress will be forced by reality to pass some form of the Delaney-Katko bill.

References

Dufrane v. Navient Solutions, Inc. (In re Dufrane), 566 B.R. 28 (Bankr. C.D. Cal. 2017).

Representative John Delaney press releaseDelaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt, May 5, 2017.

Representative John Katko press release. Reps. Katko and Delaney File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt. May 8, 2017.


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

US. Government Accounting Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Needs to Improve Its Income-Driven Repayment Plan Budget Estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, November, 2016.





Sunday, April 30, 2017

Parents Plus Loans can be a nightmare: "Teach your children well . . ."

Teach your children well,

Their father's hell did slowly go by.



Teach the Children Well

Lyrics by Graham Nash

More than three million parents have taken out student loans for their children's college education. Eleven percent are in default, and another 180,000 are delinquent in their payments.

Congress created the Parent Plus program in 1980, which allows parents to obtain student loans to supplement the loans their children take out to finance their college studies. As Josh Mitchell reported in the Wall Street Journal last week, outstanding indebtedness on Parent Plus loans now tops $77 billion. 

The government issues Parent Plus loans with little regard to whether the parents can pay them back. Many parents who take out Parent Plus loans have subprime credit scores, which means they run a high risk of default. As Mitchell pointed out,  the Parent Plus default rate is higher than the home mortgage default rate during the 2008 housing crisis.

Without question, Parent Plus loans are being issued recklessly. "This credit is being extended on terms that specifically, willfully ignore their ability to repay," a spokesperson for Harvard Law School's Legal Services Center charged. "You can't avoid that we're targeting high-cost, high-dollar-amount loans to people who we know can't afford them."

To its credit, the Obama administration recognized that lending standards for Parent Plus loans were too lax. In 2011, the Department of Education introduced modest underwriting rules to prevent parents with low credit ratings from taking out Parent Plus loans.

But the higher education industry protested, arguing that tighter underwriting standards for Parent Plus loans would reduce college access for low-income and minority students. In response to this pressure, the Department of Education withdrew the new rules.

Obviously, people who are taking out student loans for their children are older; two thirds of Parent Plus borrowers are between the ages of 50 and 64. Many of them have student loans of their own. Some parents took out Parent Plus loans expecting their children to get good jobs and take over the loan payments.  But sometimes that doesn't happen, and the parents find themselves responsible for paying off loans they can't afford to repay.

Parents who default on Parent Plus loans risk having their income-tax refunds seized and their Social Security checks garnished. And bankruptcy is rarely an option. Parents who default on their children's student loans will find it difficult to discharge those loans in bankruptcy even if they are unemployed or in ill health.

In an NPR podcast, Michelle Singletary, a finance columnist, pointed out that many parents take out Parent Plus loans to help their children attend expensive colleges their families can't afford. It is difficult, Singletary acknowledged, for parents to tell their children that a particular elite college is simply out of financial reach.

The child might say, "But this is my dream college." If that happens, Singletary advised, the parent must have the wisdom and fortitude to say, "Honey, you need to find another dream."

Or, as songwriter Graham Nash might put it, "Teach your children well" regarding their college choices because if you borrow money for your child to go to college and can't pay it back, you will enter financial hell, a hell that will go by slowly.



References

Tom Ashbrook. Parents On the Hook for Student Loans. NPR Onpoint (podcast), April 26, 2017.

Josh Mitchell. The U.S. Makes It Easy for Parents to Get College Loans--Repaying Them Is Another StoryWall Street Journal, April 24, 2017. 

Note: Quotations in this essay come from the sources cited in the reference list.

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray are Poster Children for the Student Loan Crisis: Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Distressed Student-Loan Debtors are Insane

In a recent post, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, who won a partial discharge of their student-loan debt in a bankruptcy case decided in December 2016.  Educational Credit Management (ECMC), the creditor in their case, is appealing the decision. We should all hope ECMC loses the appeal, because the Murrays are the poster children for the student-loan crisis.

Alan and Catherine Murray: Poster Children for the Student-Loan Crisis

Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties, took out 31 federal student loans to get bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in the early 1990s. In all, they borrowed about $77,000, not an unreasonable amount, given the fact that they used the loans to get a total of four degrees.

In 1996, the Murrays consolidated all those loans, a sensible thing to do; and they began making payments on the consolidated loans at 9 percent interest.  Over the years they made payments totally $58,000--or 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Nevertheless, during some periods, the Murrays obtained economic hardship deferments on their loans, which allowed them to skip some payments. Interest continued to accrue, however; and by 2014, when the Murrays filed for bankruptcy, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000!

Fortunately for the Murrays, Judge Dale Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, granted them a partial discharge of their massive debt. Judge Somers ruled that the Murrays had managed their student loans in good faith, but they would never be able to pay back the $311,000 they owed. Very sensibly, he reduced their debt to $77,000, which is the amount they borrowed, and canceled all the accumulated interest.

 Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the Murrays' student-loan creditor, appealed Judge Somers' ruling. The Murrays should have been placed in an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), ECMC argued, which would have required them to pay about $1,000 a month for a period of 20 years.

Obviously, ECMC's argument is insane. As Judge Somers pointed out, interest was accruing on the Murrays' debt at the rate of almost $2,000 a month. Thus ECMC's proposed payment schedule would have resulted in the Murrays' debt growing by a thousand dollars a month even if they faithfully made their loan payments. By the end of their 20-year payment term, their total debt would have grown to at least two thirds of a million dollars.

The Murrays' case is not atypical: Billions of dollars in student loans are negatively amortizing

You might think the Murray case is an anomaly, but it is not. Millions of people took out student loans, made payments in good faith, and wound up owing two, three, or even four times what they borrowed. In other words, millions of student loans are negatively amortizing--they are growing larger, not smaller, during the repayment period.

For example, Brenda Butler, whose bankruptcy case was decided last year, borrowed $14,000 to get a bachelor's degree in English from Chapman University, which she obtained in 1995. Like the Murrays, she made good faith efforts to pay off her loans, but she was unemployed from time to time and could not always make her loan payments.

By the time Butler filed for bankruptcy in 2014, her debt had doubled to $32,000, even though she had made payments totally $15,000--a little more than the amount she borrowed.

Unfortunately for Ms. Butler, her bankruptcy judge was not as compassionate as the Murrays' judge. The judge ruled that Butler should stay on a 25-year repayment plant, which would terminate in 2037, 42 years after she graduated from Chapman University.

Here is sad reality. Millions of people are seeing their total student-loan indebtedness go up--not down--after they begin repayment. According to the Brookings Institution,  more than half of the 2012 cohort of student-loan borrowers saw their total indebtedness go up two years after beginning the repayment phase.  Among students who attended for-profit colleges, three out of four saw their loan balances grow larger two years into repayment.

An analysis by Inside Higher Ed concluded that less that half of college borrowers (47 percent) had made any progress on paying off their student loans 5 years into repayment. In the for-profit sector, only about a third (35 percent) had paid anything down on their student loans  over a 5-year period.

And the Wall Street Journal reported recently that half the students at more than a thousand colleges and schools had not reduced their loan balances by one dime seven years after their repayment obligations began.

The Federal Student Loan Program is a Train Wreck

Awhile back, Senator Elizabeth Warren accused the federal government of making "obscene" profits on student loans because the interest rates were higher than the government's cost of borrowing money. Warren's charge might have been true if people were paying back their loans, but they are not.

Eight million people are in default and millions more are seeing their student-loan balances grow larger with each passing month.  The Murrays are the poster children for this tragedy because they handled their loans in good faith and still wound up owing four times what they borrowed.

In short, the federal student loan program is a train wreck. Judge Somers' solution for the Murrays was to wipe out the accrued interest on their debt and to simply require them to pay back the principle. This is the only sensible way to deal with the massive problem of negative amortization.



References

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

Paul Fain. Feds' data error inflated loan repayment rates on the College Scoreboard. Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2017.

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default ratesWashington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015).

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

Ruth Tam. Warren: Profits from student loans are 'obscene.' Washington Post, July 17, 2013.



Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Texas bankruptcy court slaps ECMC with punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing a Starbucks employee's paychecks in violation of the automatic stay provision: "The Ragged Edge"

Anyone who has dealt with Educational Credit Management Corporation as a debtor knows that it is a ruthless and heartless organization. As one of the federal government's student-loan debt collectors, it has harassed hapless creditors thousands of time. It was ECMC that opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month.

But the Roth case does not fully display ECMC's callousness.  A better illustration of its merciless behavior is found in Bruner-Halteman v. ECMC, decided by a Texas bankruptcy court last April.

Bruner-Halteman was a single mother who worked at Starbucks, living, as the bankruptcy court observed, "on the ragged edge where any adversity can be catastrophic." She owed about $5,000 on a student loan issued by Sallie Mae, and she was in default.

In 2012, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's  Starbucks wages, and she filed for bankruptcy, which, under federal law, triggers an automatic stay of all garnishment activities. ECMC received notice of the bankruptcy filing, and even participated as a creditor in Bruner-Halteman's bankruptcy proceedings. But it continued to garnish Bruner-Halteman's wages for almost two years.

In fact, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's wages 37 times AFTER she filed for bankruptcy--a clear violation of the law. Moreover, ECMC had no reasonable excuse for its misbehavior. In fact, ECMC refunded the wages it garnished on 17 occasions but kept on garnishing this poor woman's wages. Indeed, the garnishments did not stop until Bruner-Halteman  filed a lawsuit for damages in the bankruptcy court.

The bankruptcy court held a three-day trial on Bruner-Haltman's claims and heard plenty of evidence about the stress Bruner-Halteman experienced due to ECMC's illegal garnishments.  On April 8, 2016, the court awarded her actual damages of  about $8,000, attorney fees, and $74,000 in punitive damages.

Here is how the bankruptcy judge summarized ECMC's conduct:
ECMC's systematic, knowing, and willful disregard of the automatic stay and the protections afforded a debtor by the bankruptcy system was particularly egregious and offends the integrity of the the bankruptcy process. . . The indifference shown by ECMC to the Plaintiff and the bankruptcy process is gravely disturbing.
The court was particularly offended by the fact that ECMC repeatedly refunded the amounts it garnished but did not stop the garnishment process. "The callousness of the refund process is particularly rattling," the court wrote.

"In order to process a refund," the court noted, "an ECMC employee had to make the determination that the debtor had an active bankruptcy case, but that did nothing to convince ECMC that it should be cancelling the wage garnishments . . ." Instead, ECMC processed the refunds "at whatever pace it chose" while Bruner-Halteman "was doing everything she could to make ends meet."

At the conclusion of its opinion, the court summarized ECMC's behavior as follows:
A sophisticated creditor, ECMC, active in many cases in this district and across the country, decided that it could continue to garnish a debtor's wages with full knowledge that she was in a pending bankruptcy case. The Plaintiff, a woman who suffers from a severe medical condition, was hurt in the process. She was deprived of the full use of her paycheck. She incurred significant attorneys' fees in trying to fix the situation. A garnishment of a few hundred dollars may not be much to everyone, but to Kristin Bruner-Halteman, it meant a lot.
I will make just two comments about ECMC's merciless and cruel behavior in the Bruner-Halteman case. First, $74,000 might be a significant punitive-damages award for some organizations, but 74 grand is peanuts to ECMC.  After all, the Century Foundation reported recently that ECMC, a nonprofit organization, has $1 billion in cash and unrestricted assets. A punitive damages award of a million dollars would have been more appropriate.

Second, Ms. Bruner-Halteman was not awarded damages for ECMC's outlaw conduct until April 8, 2016, almost exactly four years after ECMC's first  wrongful garnishment.  Obviously, ECMC knows how to stretch out the litigatin process  to wear down its adversaries.

ECMC's name has appeared as a named party in more than 500 court decisions. A little dust-up like the one it had with Bruner-Haltemann is simply the price of doing business in the dirty commerce of harassing student-loan defaulters. And you can bet no one at ECMC missed a meal or lost any sleep because of the Bruner-Halteman case.

Perhaps Senator Elizabeth Warren, who publicly bemoans the excesses of the student loan industry, should hold Senate hearings and ask ECMC's CEO a few questions. Questions like: How much do ECMC executives pay themselves? How did ECMC accumulate $1 billion in unrestricted assets? And who is paying ECMC's attorney fees for hounding all those American student-loan borrowers--millions of whom, like Bruner-Halteman, are living "on the ragged edge"?

References

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

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








Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Kansas bankruptcy court discharged all the accrued interest on a married couple's student loans: Murray v. ECMC

Do you remember political consultant James Carville's famous line during the 1992 presidential campaign? "It's the economy, stupid," Carville supposedly observed. That eloquently simple remark became Bill Clinton's distilled campaign message and helped propel him into the presidency.

Something similar might be said about the student-loan crisis: "It's the interest, stupid." In fact, for many Americans, it is the interest and penalties on their student loans--not the amount they borrowed--which is causing them so much financial distress.

The Remarkable case of Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation

This truth is starkly illustrated in the case of Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, which was decided last December by a Kansas bankruptcy judge.  At the time they filed for bankruptcy, Alan and Catherine Murray owed $311,000 in student-loan debt, even though they had only borrowed about $77,000. Thus 75 percent of their total debt represented interest on their loans, which had accrued over almost 20 years at an annual rate of 9 percent.

As Judge Dale Somers explained in his ruling on the case, the Murrays had taken out 31 student loans back in the 1990s to obtain bachelor's degrees and master's degrees. In 1996, when they consolidated their loans, they only owed a total of $77,524.

Over the years, the Murrays made loan payments when they could, which totaled $54,000--more than half the amount they borrowed. Nevertheless, they entered into several forbearance agreements that allowed them to skip payments; and they also signed up for income-driven repayment plans that reduced the amount of their monthly payments. Meanwhile, interest on their debt continued to accrue. By the the time the Murrays filed for bankruptcy in 2014, their $77,000 debt had grown to almost a third of a million dollars.

The Murrays' combined income was substantial--about $95,000. Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the creditor in the case, argued that the Murrays had enough discretionary income to make significant loan payments in an income-driven repayment plan.  In fact, under such a plan, their monthly loan payments would be less than $1,000 a month,

But Judge Somers disagreed. Interest on the Murrays' debt was accruing at the rate of $65 a day, Judge Somers pointed out--about $2,000 a month. Clearly, the couple would never pay off their loan under ECMC's proposed repayment plan. Instead,  their debt would grow larger with each passing month.

On the other hand, in Judge Somers' view, the Murrays had sufficient income to pay off the principle of their loan and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, he crafted a remarkably sensible ruling whereby the interest on the Murrays' debt was discharged but not the principle. The Murrays are still obligated to pay the $77,000 they borrowed back in the 1990s plus future interest on this amount, which would begin accruing at the rate of 9 percent commencing on the date of the court's judgment.

Judge Somers Points the Way to Sensible Student-Debt Relief


In my view, Judge Somers' decision in the Murray case is a sensible way to address the student debt crisis.  Eight million people have defaulted on their loans, and 5.6 million more are making token payments under income-driven repayment plans that are often not large enough to cover accruing interest. Millions of Americans have obtained loan deferments that allow them to skip their loan payments; but these people--like the Murrays--are seeing their loan balances grow each month as interest accrues.

Judge Somers' decision doesn't solve the student-loan crisis in its entirety, but it is a good solution for millions of people whose loan balances have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled due to accrued interest, penalties, and fees.

Obviously, Judge Somers' solution should only be offered to people who dealt with their loans in good faith.  Judge Somers specifically ruled that the Murrays  had acted in good faith regarding their loans. In fact, they paid back about 70 percent of the amount they borrowed.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, ECMC appealed the Murray decision, hoping to overturn it. Nevertheless, let us take heart from the fact that a Kansas bankruptcy judge reviewed a married couple's financial disaster and crafted a fair and humane solution.


References

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








Friday, January 20, 2017

Department of Education inflated student-loan repayment rates for nearly every school and college in the United States! Playing for Time

The Wall Street Journal published a story a few days ago that is truly shocking.  Based on WSJ's analysis, the Department of Education has inflated student-loan repayment rates for 99.8% of all colleges, universities, and trade schools in the United States.

Earlier this month, DOE acknowledged that a "coding error" had caused the Department to mistakenly under report the student-loan default rates at many schools and colleges. But the magnitude of the error wasn't generally known until the Journal published its own analysis.

According to WSJ, at least half the students who attended more than a thousand colleges and trade schools had either defaulted on their student loans within 7 years of beginning repayment or failed to pay down even one dollar of their student loan debt.

This news is shocking, but not surprising. DOE has been misleading the public for years about  student-loan default rates.  Last autumn, for example, DOE reported a 3-year default rate of about 10 percent, a slight decrease from the previous year. But that figure did not take into account the people who had obtained forbearances or deferments and weren't making payments.  The five-year default rate for a  recent cohort of  student debtors is more than double DOE's three-year rate: 28 percent.


And last September, DOE mislead the public again. The Department  identified 477 schools where more than half the students had defaulted or failed to pay down their loan balances 7 years into repayment. But we now know the figure is more than double that number: 1029.

The implications of this new data are staggering. Obviously, the federal student-loan program is a train wreck. Millions of people have student loans they will never pay back. Eight million have defaulted and millions more are making payments so low that their loan balances are growing due to accruing interest.

Several large for-profit colleges have closed under allegations of fraud.  Corinthian Colleges and ITT together have a half million former students. DeVry, which just reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, has a total of more than a quarter of a million students who took out federal loans to finance their studies. Accumulated debt for DeVry students alone is more than $8 billion.

Like the inmate musicians of Auschwitz, DOE's response to this calamity has been to play for time. It has encouraged millions of people to sign up for income-drive repayment plans (IDRs) under terms such that IDR participants will never pay off their loans.  And DOE has set up a cumbersome procedure whereby students who believe they were defrauded by a college can apply to have their student loans forgiven.

But there is only one way out of this nightmare: bankruptcy relief. Ultimately Congress will have to repeal the "undue hardship" provision in the Bankruptcy Code, which has made it virtually impossible for overburdened student debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy.

Until that happens, President Trump's Department of Education should modify its harsh stance toward bankrupt student loan debtors. DOE must stop insisting that every bankrupt student borrower should be pushed into an IDR that stretches loan payment periods out for 20 or 25 years.

Student loan debtors who are honest and broke should be able to discharge their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. Within a couple of years that simple truth will be apparent to everyone. Why not start now to relieve the suffering of millions of Americans who got in over their heads with student loans and can't pay them back?

And let's not sell the Trump administration short. Liberals have assumed that Donald Trump will protect the for-profit colleges because of his history with Trump University. But I am not so sure. President Trump knows how to read a financial statement and he understands the value of bankruptcy. He might just do the right thing and turn this calamity over to the federal bankruptcy courts. 

Playing for Time


References

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than Believed. Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.