Showing posts with label student loans and bankruptcy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label student loans and bankruptcy. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wells Fargo Facing Penalties Over Ignoring Student Loan Included in Bankruptcy. Essay by Steve Rhode

By Steve Rhode.  November 27, 2017
One of our very own student loan attorneys, Austin Smith, recently scored an important victory on a Wells Fargo student loan.
Austin said, “I confess when we filed this case, I was hoping Wells Fargo would quickly see that we were right, acknowledge the mistake, and fix it. And naively, I thought they might be willing to sit down and fix the problem for all their customers. Everybody makes mistakes, and this could have been a real opportunity for Wells to prove that they’ve changed their business culture. But now I fear that Wells Fargo has no intention of changing its culture or business practices despite their public protestations to the contrary over the last year. They have dug in their heels on this issue, and seem intent to keep doing what they’re doing, which is plainly a violation of the bankruptcy laws.”
In 2007 Ryan, the consumer, filed for bankruptcy. Following the bankruptcy Wells Fargo Bank sued Ryan and obtained a state court judgment to collect on the debt. Ryan had attended Capella University, a for-profit school.
Attorney Austin Smith jumped into the fray as part of a team and last year he reopened the case and sued that the debt had in fact been discharged and sought punitive damages for discharge violations.
In this case, Educational Financial Services, a division of Wells Fargo Bank, tried to make the argument the loan was not actually discharged in the 2007 bankruptcy.
When Wells Fargo sued Ryan in State Court to collect on the student loan debt included in Ryan’s bankruptcy they made no mention of Ryan’s previous bankruptcy and discharge. The consumer felt subsequently pressured into entering a consent judgment over the debt in 2008 and made monthly payments of $150 on the loan for the next seven years.
Finally fed up Ryan found legal help to reopen his previous bankruptcy case to commence an adversary proceeding and have this matter dealt with once and for all.
The valid point raised by Ryan, the Plaintiff, was “that the loans from Wells Fargo were discharged by operation of law on November 29, 2007, because the loans were not a student debt protected by any subsection of Section 523(a)(8).” More on this technical issue can be found here.
The Judge ruled that even though Ryan had previously repaid the debt through the State Court judgment he was not prevented from reopening his bankruptcy and filing an adversary proceeding to rule on the discharge of his non-protected private student loan debt. The issue at hand was if Ryan’s discharge had been violated because the loans were not student loans under Section 523(a)(8).
And while the Court said “Section 523(a)(8) is self-executing, a student loan debt is non-dischargeable absent a determination.” The Court also said, “However, the self-executing nature of Section 523(a)(8) is premised on the debt actually being one for a student loan, a determination that was not previously made by this Court or the State Court which had concurrent jurisdiction to do so.” – Source
This is why it is so important for anyone who includes student loans in a bankruptcy to pursue an adversary proceeding to get a ruling on the dischargeability of the loans. This key step is one that often gets overlooked.
Judge John Gregg ruled Wells Fargo could not easily have the Plaintiff’s complaint dismissed and the issue would have to proceed. As you can imagine, Wells Fargo has appealed the Judge’s ruling and hopes to get a different answer on appeal. – Source
In the appeal Wells Fargo raises the point Ryan’s loans should not be discharged because “he obtained funds from Wells Fargo and the government in excess of the cost of attendance.” But shouldn’t that be the job of Wells Fargo to determine? Because if private student loans are extended for more than the cost of attendance, all or part of the loans can be discharged thru bankruptcy.
Wells Fargo is most likely in a hurry to get this matter resolved in their favor because if they are found to have pursued the alleged discharged private student loan debt they could be facing a precedent and financial consequences.
Ryan’s amended complaint they are trying to get tossed out summarizes the issue at the heart of this case. It says, “Not all student loans are presumptively non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. In fact, the term “student loan” appears nowhere in section 523(a)(8). Instead, section 523(a)(8) makes certain educational debts presumptively non-dischargeable, including government issued educational loans, defaulted conditional government grants and scholarships, certain loans from non-profit institutions, and private education loans that are qualified education loans under the tax code. Section 523(a)(8) does not except from discharge a host of other types of traditional private, credit-based loans couched as “student loans” by for-profit lenders, including loans for K-12 programs, loans made to students at unaccredited trade schools, loans made for alcohol and drug rehab, and loans made in excess of the “cost of attendance.” This is reinforced by the plain language of the discharge order, which states that debts for “most student loans” are non-dischargeable. If debts for “all student loans” are presumptively non-dischargeable, then more than 10 million discharge orders have been issued with an erroneous legal conclusion since 2005.” – Source
The complaint also states, “Given Wells Fargo’s actual and constructive knowledge of the timing of the Plaintiff’s loans, the “cost of attendance” at Capella University, and the nature of the Loans it extended to the Plaintiff, Wells Fargo knew or should have known that the Loans were discharged in the Plaintiff’s bankruptcy.”
This is an interesting case and I can’t wait to get the final ruling after a lot more expensive court time. We’ll have to keep our eye on this one.
*****
Steve's essay was originally posted on The Get Out of Debt Guy web site.
Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bloomberg reports that student-loan delinquencies have ticked upward: Another sign of growing misery among student debtors

Shahien Nasiripour, writing for Bloomberg.com, wrote an article last month about rising student-loan delinquency rates. As of June 30th, 18.8 percent of student borrowers were at least one month late on their loan payments.  That's about 3.3 million college borrowers.

The Department of Education's June report showed a slight uptick from the delinquency rate one year earlier, when 18.6 percent of student debtors were a month late on their loan payments.

What does this mean?

Yelena Shulyatyeva, a senior economist for Bloomberg Intelligence, professed to be mystified. "There's no fundamental reason for that to be happening," Shulyatyeva said.

James Kvaal, who was President Obama's Deputy Director of White House Domestic Policy, also seemed stumped by rising delinquency rates. "That the trend has stalled," Kvaal said, "is not yet a warning sign, but it is a question mark."

Nasiripour, who has done some fine reporting on the student loan crisis, summarized why this development is puzzling to many policy experts. "After all," she wrote, "the U.S. economy has improved since June of last year, with lower unemployment, higher household incomes and increased wealth, federal data show." Moreover, Nasiripour pointed out "Consumers are more confident about the economy, and their own personal finances, too, according to Bloomberg Consumer Comfort data."

But rising delinquency rates are just one more sign that the student loan program is in meltdown. Let's tick off some more disaster indicators:
  • Last year, 1.1 million Americans defaulted on their student loans at an average rate of 3,000 defaults a day.
  • A recent report released by the National Center for Education Statics revealed that almost 6 people in ten who first enrolled for postsecondary education in 1995-96 had not paid off their student loans 20 years later.
  • As reported by the Wall Street Journal, more than half the students at a thousand colleges and schools had not reduced their student-loan debt by one penny seven years into repayment.
  • According to a 2016 report from the Government Accounting Office, half the people who entered income-driven repayment plans to lower their monthly loan payments were removed from their IDRs for failing to recertify their income.
  • Brookings Institution report noted that more than one out of four people (28 percent) in a recent cohort of student borrowers defaulted on their loans within five years of beginning repayment. The default rate among students who attended for-profit colleges was 47 percent.
Congress, the Department of Education, and the higher education industry refuse to face reality. I suppose all the people who should be addressing this crisis are hoping they will be retired and playing golf in Florida when the student-loan program collapses.

And collapse it will. In the meantime, millions of student-loan debtors are buried under a mountain of debt.

I believe the federal bankruptcy courts are slowly awakening to this crisis and that they are increasingly willing to rule compassionately toward distressed student debtors who seek bankruptcy relief.  The Murray decision out of Kansas, which was affirmed on appeal last month, is a heartening sign.

The Murrays were fortunate enough to have been represented by an able attorney, and they also received assistance in the form of an amicus brief filed by the National Consumer Law Center and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Unfortunately, few insolvent student debtors are able to find attorneys to take their cases. If American lawyers understood the student-loan crisis for what it is--a human rights issue, they might take up some of these cases as volunteers, much as the civil rights lawyers did in the 1960s, when attorneys from across the United States came South at the risk of their lives to represent civil rights activists.

I am convinced that the solution to the student-loan catastrophe lies with the federal bankruptcy courts. Congress does not have the collective courage to address this problem legislatively, and the higher education industry--like a cocaine addict--survives from day to day on regular infusions of federal student-aid money.

American colleges, like drug addicts, survive from day to day on regular infusions of federal student-aid money.


References

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


Shahien Nasiripour. More Americans Are Falling Behind on Student Loans, and Nobody Quite Knows Why. Bloomberg.com, September 28, 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 Accounting Office, November, 2016.

Jennie H. Woo, Alexander H. Bentz, Stephen Lew, Erin Dunlop Velez, Nichole Smith, RTI International,  (2017, October). Repayment  of Student Loans as of 2015 Among 1995-96 and 2003-04 First-Time Beginning StudentsFirst Look (NCES 2018-410). U.S. Department of Education. Washington DC; National Center for Education Statistics. [Sean A Simone, Project Officer]


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Student Loan Debt Hurts Economy, Consumers, and Retirement Savings, essay by Steve Rhode

When you live in a society like ours that is dependent on consumers to consumer goods and services, a reduction in the ability for growing sections of society to do their job and purchase stuff is going to lead to slower growth. That’s not good.

When growth slows there is less of a need for workers, jobs are cut, wages go flat, and life becomes tougher for many.

Historically, people accumulated wealth through homeownership and savings. When reaching the age of retirement the home could be sold and the equity created could be withdrawn. With less access to this type of wealth accumulation and the inability to save for retirement due to growing student loan debt, tragedy is on the horizon.

Student loan debt is hurting an entire generation of consumers who are setup for financial failure at this point.

The easy access to student loans has led to a growing for-profit private student loan industry that since 2009 has been drawing in many through loans and co-signing. Private student loans exploded with the advent of the for-profit schools. As an example, read Navient Knew Loans Were Garbage When They Saddled Students With Them. Yet the current Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos seems resistant to crack down on protections from these schools.

Federal government student loans have been a blessing for many to obtain funds to attend higher education but they have been a curse as well. Schools who were qualified to receive federal funds looked at that easy money as a way to make an easy sale of a student into a seat regardless of the ability of the student to benefit from the loan and school.

Data published by the Federal Reserve Bank said, ” findings are consistent with American youth having accommodated tuition shocks not by forgoing schooling, but instead by amassing more debt.”
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York goes on to say, “Further analysis demonstrates that the tuition hike and student debt increase, despite leaving higher educational attainment unchanged, can explain between 11 and 35 percent of the observed approximate eight percentage-point decline in homeownership for 28-to-30-year-olds over 2007-15 for these same nine cohorts. The results suggest that states that increase college costs for current student cohorts can expect to see a response not through a decline in workforce skills, but instead through weaker spending and wealth accumulation among young consumers in the years to come.”

At the same time as homeownership has been declining, kids are living with their parents at an increasing rate.


As a society nothing good is going to come from lower amounts of wealth accumulation, and weaker spending.

Unless we tackle the growing problem of excessive student loan debt and allow those with unmanageable student loan debt to have access to a fresh start in bankruptcy, the economic future of the days ahead is going to be less than it could have been.

Steve Rhode


This article appeared on the Personal Finance Syndication Network web site and also on The Get Out of Debt Guy site. Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

II. Filing an adversary complaint

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


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

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

III. Gather your evidence before you filed your adversary complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Be psychologically prepared for a long court battle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII. A few words about private student loans


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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

References

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





Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Parents should NEVER co-sign a child's student loans: Don't throw your life away!

For pity's sake, Christine, say no! Don't throw your life away for my sake!

Raoul De Chagny
Phantom of the Opera 

If you are a parent of a college student and are thinking about co-signing your child's student loan, you should read an article posted recently on Moneytips.com and re-posted on Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Moneytips reported on a survey by LendEdu that asked parents to rate their experiences as co-signers of their children's student loans. The survey findings are harrowing:
  • 34 percent reported that their child failed to make a payment on time.
  • 34 percent reported that a co-signed loan hurt their ability to apply for financing.
  • 35 percent of survey takers regretted co-signing a loan for their child.
  • 57 percent said that a co-signed loan had hurt their own credit rating.
And contemplate this sobering statistic: More than half (51.2 percent) of the respondents believed that co-signing a student loan had put their own retirement in jeopardy!

Parents often fail to understand the catastrophic consequences that can result from co-signing student loans with their children:

First of all, co-signing parents are 100 percent liable for paying back the loan if their child fails to make loan payments.

Second, a parent will find it very difficult to discharge a co-signed student loan in bankruptcy. Like student borrowers, parent co-signers cannot discharge student-loan debt in a bankruptcy court unless they can demonstrate "undue hardship"--a very difficult standard to meet.

Third, if a co-signed loan goes into default, penalties will be assessed to the amount borrowed, and the parent's credit will be adversely affected.

There are exceptions for almost every rule, but there are no exceptions to this one: NEVER CO-SIGN A STUDENT LOAN FOR A CHILD.  If your darling child's college plans require you to co-sign a student loan, then your child needs to make another plan--a plan that doesn't put your financial future at risk.



References

Why Co-Signing a Loan Could Delay Your Retirement, Moneytips.com April 28, 2017. Re-posted on  Personal Finance Syndication Network, pfsyn.com

Friday, April 14, 2017

Bankrupt student-loan debtors need GOOD LAWYERS: The sad case of Ronald Joe Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education

We often hear that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy---don't even try. But in fact, quite a few people have gotten relief from their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. And a few student-loan debtors have gone to bankruptcy court without lawyers and been successful.

But if you go to bankruptcy court to shed your student loans, you should bring a good attorney because the Department of Education or one of its agents will be there to meet you, and DOE and its proxies have battalions of skilled lawyers who will fight you every step of the way.


The Sad Case of Ronald Joe Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, decided in 2015, illustrates why student-loan debtors should have good lawyer to represent them in the bankruptcy courts.  In that case, Judge Tamara Mitchell, an Alabama bankruptcy judge, refused to discharge Ronald Joe Johnson's student loans even though he and his wife were living on the edge of poverty. If Mr. Johnson had been represented by a competent attorney, I think he might have won his case.

In 2015, Johnson filed an adversary proceeding in an Alabama bankruptcy court, seeking to have his student loans discharged. The U.S. Department of Education opposed a discharge (as it almost always does), and a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Birmingham, Alabama showed up to represent DOE and make sure Johnson lost his case.

Johnson had taken out student loans in the 1990s to enroll in some sort of postsecondary program, which Judge Mitchell did not bother to describe in her opinion. Johnson testified that he had enrolled for four semesters but had only completed one of them,  He testified further that his studies had not benefited him at all.

In 2000, Johnson obtained a Direct Consolidation Loan  in the amount of about $25,000, with interest accruing at 8.25 percent per year. Although he paid approximately $10,000 on the loan, mostly through wage garnishments and tax offsets, he hadn't reduced the principal by even one dollar. In fact, when Johnson appeared in bankruptcy court in 2015, his debt had grown to over $41,000.

Mr. Johnson desperately needed relief from his student loans. He testified at trial that he made about $2,000 a month working at two jobs; he was a municipal employee and also an employee at a local Walmart. His wife suffered from diabetes, which required expenditures for insulin and other supplies; and of course some of his income had been garnished by the government.

Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, he signed a formal stipulation of facts that a DOE lawyer had cunningly prepared. In that stipulation, Johnson affirmed that it would not be an "undue hardship" for him to repay his student loans.

Although Mr. Johnson did not know it at the time, he lost his adversary proceeding the instant he signed his name to DOE's prepared stipulation. Debtors cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show undue hardship; and Mr. Johnson admitted in writing that paying back his loans would not be an undue hardship.

If Ronald Joe Johnson had been represented by a lawyer, he would never have signed that document. Moreover, a lawyer would have told him to bring evidence to court documenting his wife's medical expenses.

In short, Johnson was a sitting duck when he walked into Judge Mitchell's bankruptcy court without legal counsel. Judge Mitchell noted that he admitted that his loans did not present an undue hardship and that he had not brought any evidence of the expenses he had incurred to treat his wife's diabetes.

And then Judge Mitchell walked Johnson through the the three-pronged Brunner test and concluded that he failed all three prongs.  He was able to pay back his loans and maintain a minimal standard of living, Judge Mitchell ruled; and he had not shown any additional circumstances indicating he could not pay back the loans in the future.

Finally, Judge Mitchell ruled that Johnson failed the good faith test because he had made virtually no loan payments other than payments made through income-tax offsets and wage garnishments.

Mr. Johnson had gone to court to argue reasonably that he believed he had paid down his loans through income-tax offsets and wage garnishments. All he asked for was relief from the interest and penalties that had been added to his debt.

But Johnson's arguments fell on deaf ears. He and his wife are stuck with a debt that grows larger every day and will probably never be repaid.

Why can't student debtors find good lawyers?


Why can't people like Ronald Joe Johnson find good lawyers to represent them in bankruptcy court There are at least three reasons:

First, lawyers are expensive, and people who go to bankruptcy court don't have money to hire a good lawyer.

Second, bankruptcy lawyers are not keeping up with recent trends in the bankruptcy courts  and many believe--incorrectly--that it is impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. Thus, even if Mr. Johnson had had money to pay a lawyer, a bankruptcy attorney might have told him that it would be pointless to try to shed his student loans in bankruptcy.

Third, legal aid clinics and poverty law centers, which should be representing people like Mr. Johnson, aren't interested in the student-loan crisis. They would prefer to provide pro bono legal services in landlord-tenant disputes or fight courthouse battles over traditional civil rights issues.

In fact, I called the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains an office in Alabama, and asked if the Center would help desperate student-loan debtors. I was told the SPLC does not do that kind of work.

Distressed student-loan debtors need legal representation in the bankruptcy courts, but they are not likely to get it. Nevertheless, some bankruptcy judges have begun issuing sensible, compassionate, and well-reasoned decisions on behalf of people like Ronald Joe Johnson.  Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, Judge Tamara Mitchell is not a a compassionate bankruptcy judge.

References

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, 541 B.R. 750 (N.D. Ala. 2015).



Friday, December 2, 2016

Sandy Baum's new book on student debt contains some good ideas

In the past,  I have been critical of Sandy Baum's work on the federal student-loan program. In my view, she sometimes drastically understated the enormity of the student-loan crisis. But her new book, titled Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing, contains some good ideas, which I endorse.  Here are some of her most important recommendations:

"Don't Garnish Social Security Payments." I have long argued that the federal government should stop garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Baum agrees. As she put it, it is one thing for the government to garnish wages of student-loan defaulters or scoop up defaulters' tax refunds, but "[f]urther diminishing the living standards of senior citizens . . . with no potential for labor market earnings who are struggling to make ends meet on their Social Security payments is quite another thing." Bravo.

Stop giving private lenders special protection in the bankruptcy courts. In 2005, Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code to make private student loans nondischargeable in bankruptcy unless the borrower could show "undue hardship," the same standard that applies to federal student loans. This is wrong.

As Baum observed, "[t]here is no good reason for the government to sanction these unsecured loans as student loans or to grant them any special provisions, particularly . . ., protection from bankruptcy proceedings." This is an eminently sensible observation, and other respected policy commentators agree with Baum on this.

Treat student loans like any other unsecured debt in bankruptcy. I have argued for years that student loans should be treated like any other unsecured debt in bankruptcy and that the "undue hardship" provision in the Bankruptcy Code should be repealed or at least interpreted far more humanely. 

I was heartened to read that Baum, a leading expert on the federal student loan program, agrees with me on this point. Indeed, reforming bankruptcy laws to allow distressed student-loan debtors relief from oppressive student loan debt is the key to reforming the entire student loan program.

Other reforms Baum proposes. Baum made some other good points in her book. For example, some limits should be placed on the amount of money people can borrow to fund their college studies; and some limit needs to be placed on the amount of interest that can accrue on student-loan debt. She also said limits should be placed on the amount elderly people can borrow to fund their studies since they won't work long enough to pay off enormous amounts of student-loan debt.

Baum makes other good points in her book. But the reforms I've listed here are critical.  If the policy makers aren't going to listen to me (and so far they have not), then perhaps they will listen to Sandy Baum.

References

Sandy Baum. Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The student loan crisis and the first 100 days: Please, President Trump, provide bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, and we can throw her promise of a tuition-free college education in the ashcan. Meanwhile, the student loan crisis grows worse with each passing month.

Eleven million people have either defaulted on their loans or are delinquent in their payments. More than 5 million student-loan debtors are in long-term income based repayment plans that will never lead to loan payoffs.Several million student borrowers have loans in deferment or forbearance while interest continues to accrue on their loan balances.

Soon we will have a new president, and an exciting opportunity to look at the federal student loan program from a fresh perspective. What can President Trump do to bring relief to distressed college-loan debtors. Here are some ideas--respectfully submitted:

FIRST, TREAT THE WOUNDED.

President Trump can do several things quickly to alleviate the suffering.

Stop garnishing Social Security checks of loan defaulters. More than 150,000 elderly student-loan defaulters are seeing their Social Security checks garnished. President Trump could stop that practice on a dime. Admittedly, this would be a very small gesture; the number of garnishees is minuscule compared to the 43 million people who have outstanding student loans. But this symbolic act would signal that our government is not heartless.

Streamline the loan-forgiveness process for people who were defrauded by the for-profit colleges. DOE already has a procedure in place for forgiving student loans taken out by people who were defrauded by a for-profit college, but the administrative process is slow and cumbersome. For example, Corinthian Colleges and ITT both filed for bankruptcy, and many of their former students have valid fraud claims. So far, few of these victims have obtained relief from the Department of Education.

Why not simply forgive the student loans of everyone who took out a federal loan to attend these two institutions and others that closed while under investigation for fraudulent practices?

Force for-profit colleges to delete mandatory arbitration clauses from student enrollment documents. The Obama administration criticized mandatory arbitration clauses, but it didn't eliminate them. President Trump could sign an Executive Order banning all for-profit colleges from putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their student-enrollment documents.

Banning mandatory arbitration clauses would allow fraud victims to sue for-profit colleges and to bring class action suits. And by taking this step, President Trump would only be implementing a policy that President Obama endorsed but didn't get around to implementing.

Abolish unfair penalties and fees. Student borrowers who default on their loans are assessed enormous penalties by the debt collectors--18 percent and even more. President Trump's Department of Education could ban that practice or at least reduce the penalties to a more reasonable amount.

PLEASE PROVIDE REASONABLE BANKRUPTCY RELIEF FOR DISTRESSED STUDENT-LOAN DEBTORS.

The reforms I outlined are minor, although they could be implemented quickly through executive orders or the regulatory process. But the most important reform--reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts--will require a change in the Bankruptcy Code.

Please, President Trump, prevail on Congress to abolish 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(8) from the Bankruptcy Code--the provision that requires student-loan debtors to show undue hardship as a condition for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

Millions of people borrowed too much money to get a college education, and they can't pay it back. Some were defrauded by for-profit colleges, some chose the wrong academic major, some did not complete their studies, and some paid far too much to get a liberal arts degree from an elite private college. More than a few fell off the economic ladder due to divorce or illness, including mental illness.

Regardless of the reason, most people took out student loans in good faith and millions of people can't pay them back. Surely a fair and humane justice system should allow these distressed debtors  reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts.

President Trump can address this problem in two ways:

  • First, the President could direct the Department of Education and the loan guaranty agencies (the debt collectors) not to oppose bankruptcy relief for honest but unfortunate debtors--and that's most of the people who took out student loans and can't repay them.
  • Second, the President could encourage Congress to repeal the "undue hardship" provision from the Bankruptcy Code.
Critics will say that bankruptcy relief gives deadbeat debtors a free ride, but in fact, most people who defaulted on their loans have suffered enough.from the penalties that have rained down on their heads.

More importantly, our nation's heartless attitude about student-loan default has discouraged millions of Americans and helped drive them out of the economy. President Trump has promised middle-class and working-class Americans an opportunity for a fresh start. Let's make sure that overburdened student-loan debtors get a fresh start too.

References

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

Stephen Burd. Signing Away Rights. Inside Higher Ed, December 17, 2013. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/12/17/essay-questions-mandatory-arbitration-clauses-students-profit-higher-education

Andrew Kreighbaum, Warren: Education Dept. Failing Corinthian StudentsInside Higher Ed, September 30, 2016. Accessible at https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/09/30/warren-education-dept-failing-corinthian-students

Senator Elizabeth Warren to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., letter dated September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2016-9-29_Letter_to_ED_re_Corinthian_data.pdf

Ashley A. Smith. U.S. Urged to Deny Aid to For-Profits That Force Arbitration. Inside Higher Ed, February 24, 2016. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/02/24/us-urged-deny-aid-profits-force-arbitration?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=183bc9e3a3-DNU20160224&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-183bc9e3a3-198565653

U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Takes Further Steps to Protect Students from Predatory Higher Education Institutions. March 11, 2016. Accessible at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-takes-further-steps-protect-students-predatory-higher-education-institutions?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=

U.S. General Accounting Office. Older Americans: Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Borrowers. GAO-14-866T. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-866T

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Democratic Party Platform Plank on Higher Education: A Big Pile of Horse Manure

The Democratic Party released its Platform this week, or rather it released a draft marked "Deliberative and Predecisional." The Higher Education plank is only a few hundred words long, but it still adds up to one big pile of horse manure.

First, the Democrats promise to cut interest rates on student loans, "thereby preventing the federal government from making billions of dollars in profits from student loans." What was the Platform Committee smoking when it wrote that sentence?

Everyone who knows even a little bit about the student-loan crisis realizes that the federal government is not making a profit on student loans. It is incurring huge losses--losses that are growing by the day.

Why do I say this? First of all, the student-loan default rate is catastrophic--far higher than the anemic rate the Department of Education publishes every autumn. The Brookings Institution reported that almost half of students who take out loans to attend a for-profit institution default in five years. The five-year default rate for students overall is 28 percent.

Moreover, the Obama administration is pushing distressed student-loan borrowers into long-term repayment plans that set monthly payments so low that borrowers are not paying down accruing interest. In fact, more than half of student borrowers are seeing their loan balances go up two years after beginning the repayment phase of their loan--not down.

Do the Brookings numbers indicate to you that the government is making a profit on the student loan program? Of course not. And the fact that Senators Elizabeth Warren, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, and now the whole Democratic Party insist that the government is reaping huge profits off the student loan program demonstrates that the Democrats are clueless about the student-loan crisis or that they are lying about it.

The Democrats also promise to "simplify and expand access to income-based repayment so that no student loan borrowers have to pay more than they can afford." In other words, the Democrats want to push more and more student borrowers into 20- or 25-year income based repayment plans (IBRPs).

Five million people are in IBRPs now; and President Obama wants to enroll 2 million more by the end of next year. Apparently, the Democrats want to increase that number even further.

Of course, IBRPs are nothing more than a conspiracy by our government to create a giant class of sharecroppers who will pay a percentage of their incomes to Uncle Sam over the majority of their working lives.

And finally, the Democrats pledge to "restore the prior standard in bankruptcy law to allow borrowers with student loans to discharge their debts in bankruptcy as a measure of last resort." I interpret this pie-in-the-sky promise to mean the Democrats will delete the "undue hardship" provision from the Bankruptcy Code.

I hope that is a promise the Democrats will keep if Hillary becomes President. If Congress would actually strike the "undue hardship" standard from the Bankruptcy Code, millions of Americans would be lining up to file bankruptcy within a week after the law is changed. And if distressed student-loan borrowers could truly get relief from their oppressive student-loan debt, a half trillion dollars in student loans would be wiped off the books.

That scenario would cause the student-loan program to collapse, which would cause hundreds of colleges and universities to close.

Our government will never let that happen. Which is why the Democratic Party's Higher Education platform is a big pile of horse manure.

Image result for elizabeth warren and charles schumer
Senators Schumer and Warren: Shoveling horse manure

References

Democratic Party Platform Draft, July 1, 2016 [Deliberative and Predecisional]. Accessible at https://demconvention.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2016-DEMOCRATIC-PARTY-PLATFORM-DRAFT-7.1.16.pdf

Schumer and Warren Pushing Obama to Address Student Debt. CNN Transcript, January 12, 2016. Accessible at http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1601/12/nday.06.html

Democrartic Senators Highlight Obscene Government Profits Off Student Loan Program. Senator Warren press release, January 31, 2014. Accessible at https://www.warren.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=329