Showing posts with label undue hardship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label undue hardship. Show all posts

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.





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.





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 of 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 hat 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 that they will never be able to pay off.

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).



Monday, April 3, 2017

Sara Fern v. FedLoan Servicing: A single mother of three discharges her student loans in bankruptcy over the objections of the U.S. Department of Education

Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, right? WRONG! Distressed student borrowers have won a string of victories in the bankruptcy courts over the past few years. And Fern v. FedLoan Servicing is another case for the win column. 

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing: A single mother of three children discharges her student loans in bankruptcy

In 2016, Sarah Fern, a 35-year-old mother of three children, discharged about $27,000 in student loans in an Iowa bankruptcy court. And last February, her victory was affirmed by the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.Over the years, 

Fern had not made a single payment on her student loans. Nevertheless, she had never been in default because her loans had always been in deferment or forbearance due to her economic circumstances.

At the time of her bankruptcy trial, Fern was raising three children on take-home pay of about $1,500 a month, which she supplemented with food stamps and public housing assistance. Fern drove an old car in need of repair, and she could not afford to buy a more reliable vehicle.

Although Fern attempted to improve her income status by taking out student loans to enroll in two postsecondary programs, neither program led to a higher paying job. As the bankruptcy court noted, Fern had never earned more than $25,000 a year.

The Department of Education opposed Fern's effort to shed her student loans in bankruptcy. DOE produced an expert witness who testified that Fern qualified for various income-based repayment plans. According to the expert, Fern's income was so low that her monthly payments would be zero if she entered one of these plans.

But Judge Thad Collins, an Iowa bankruptcy judge, rejected DOE's arguments and discharged Fern's student loans in their entirety. In Judge Collins' view, Fern would probably never be in a financial position to pay back her loans.

Under an income-based repayment plan, Judge Collins noted, Fern's monthly payments would be zero, but her debt would continue to grow as interest accrued on the unpaid balance. Although the government would forgive any unpaid portion of Fern's loans at the end of the repayment period (20 or 25 years in the future), the cancelled loan debt might be taxable to her. In addition, if Fern's student loans were not discharged, they would be a blot on her credit record.


Judge Collins recognizes emotional stress from long-term indebtedness

Judge Collins also considered the emotional distress that comes from long-term indebtedness, Fern's loans had already caused her emotional stress, Collins observed, and she would continue to suffer from emotional stress if she were forced into a long-term repayment plan:

This mounting indebtedness has also indisputably been an emotional burden on [Fern]. [She] testified that knowing that the debt is hanging over her, constantly growing, and that she will never be able to repay this debt, is distressing to her. [Fern] testified that she feels like she will never be able to get ahead because she will always have this debt.
In Judge Collins' opinion, the emotional burden of long-term indebtedness was a hardship that weighed in favor of discharging Fern's student loans, even though this burden could not be quantified. "The Court will not ignore a hardship," Collins wrote, "simply because it is not reflected on a balance sheet."

Department of Education appeals Judge Collins' decision

The Department of Education appealed Judge Collins' decision; and last February. the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Collins' ruling. According to DOE, Judge Collins erred by taking Fern's emotional burdens into account, by considering the tax consequences of a long-term repayment plan, and by recognizing that Fern's debt would grow over the years because her monthly payments under a long-term plan (zero), would cause interest on her loans to continue accumulating.

But the Eighth Circuit's BAP disagreed. "These additional observations identified by the Bankruptcy Court simply served to supplement its determination of undue hardship under the totality of circumstances test," the BAP court wrote.

The Fern decision is a big win for student-loan debtors. This is the latest federal appellate court decision to reject creditors' arguments that bankrupt student borrowers should be pushed into 20- or 25-year repayment plans instead of getting a fresh start. 


There is justice in the world (sometimes)

As one of Cormac McCarthy's fictional characters said in the novel, The Crossing, "Hay justicia en el mundo!"

Yes, there is justice in the world, but justice is not distributed evenly and sometimes it arrives too late to do us any good. Sara Fern was very fortunate to have obtained justice from Judge Thad Collins, who wrote a remarkably sensible and compassionate decision. And she was even more fortunate to have Judge Collins' decision affirmed on appeal by the Eighth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.

References

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. BAP 2017).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 553 B.R. 362 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2016).

















Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Finally, More Bankruptcy Attorneys Getting on the Student Loan Discharge Bandwagon--article by Steve Rhode

This excellent essay by Steve Rhode originally appeared on the Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSyncom.  Mr. Rhode also maintains a web site titled Get Out of Debt Guy that contains a variety of good advice and information about all manner of consumer debt problems, including student loans.  You can learn more about Steve Rodes here.

In addition to the attorneys listed in Mr. Rhode's article, I would like to commend George Thomas, a Kansas attorney, who did a great job representing Alan and Catherine Murray against Educational Credit Management Corporation  in a Kansas bankruptcy court. Mr. Thomas won a partial discharge of the Murrays' student loan debt. That case is now on appeal.


In addition,Eugene R. Wedoff, retired bankruptcy judge and incoming president of the American Bankruptcy Institute, is defending Alexandra Acosta-Conniff in an Alabama bankruptcy case now on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.


 ******

Finally, More Bankruptcy Attorneys Getting on the Student Loan Discharge Bandwagon

 by Steve Rhode


A recent MarketWatch piece by Jillian Berman did a great job of not only naming a bunch of attorneys I’m proud to call friends, but debunking this myth that there is nothing that can be done about student loans in bankruptcy.

I get so frustrated when consumers tell me they went to a bankruptcy attorney and was told there was no hope for dealing with their student loans, when there clearly was.

The article quotes four attorneys who all make the same point, there are legal options for dealing with student loans in bankruptcy. Don’t believe everything you’ve been told that there are no options – That’s Fake News! Want to learn more, here you go.

Attorney Richard Gaudreau is mentioned, “Nobody is doing anything for these people in terms of laws to benefit them,” said Richard Gaudreau, a New Hampshire-based bankruptcy attorney, who’s been working on student loan issues for the past few years. “We’re just forced to be creative.”

And when he says creative, what he’s really saying is applying some brain power and creative thinking to look at the law under new light to find where is already applies to dealing with student loans.

That’s what attorney Austin Smith is doing, and winning.

“Taking that logic one step further means that student loans from private lenders can be discharged in bankruptcy if they were made to students who didn’t attend an accredited program or were lent more money than the cost of attendance. Possible debts that fit into this category could include the aforementioned bar study loan or a loan to attend an unaccredited trade school, Smith said.

“A loan is not like a scholarship or a stipend and such a private loan cannot be included in this definition. If I were to interpret educational benefit to include loans that has some relation to attaining an education, it would render the other two provisions of [the bankruptcy code as it relates to student debt] totally superfluous,” the judge said, according to a transcript.

“I have yet to go in front of a judge who disagrees with my overall thesis, which is that not all student loans are not dischargeable,” Smith said. “I do think the tide is now turning on that.”

Then there is attorney Lewis Roberts, “Roberts’s intervention is to get judges and trustees to classify the federal student loan debt separately so that his clients can take advantage of special payment plans the government offers borrowers to manage their student loans.”

Attorney Jay Fleischman said, “This fight is just in its infancy,” he said. “We’re seeing the birth of it in many ways.”

Steve Rhode

Get Out of Debt Guy  Twitter, G+, Facebook

If you have a credit or debt question you’d like to ask, just click here and ask away. 

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

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

Dear Secretary DeVos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please do the right thing.

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Edwards v Navient: A single mom's private student loans are discharged in bankruptcy but not her federal loans

Edwards v. Navient Solutions, Inc., decided last November, contains both good news and bad news for distressed student loan debtors.

The good news is this: Paula Maxine Edwards, a single mother of two children, was able to discharge $56,640 in private student loans under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard. Judge Janice Miller Karlin, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, ruled that Edwards had managed her private loans in good faith, in spite of the fact she had made only a few payments on them.

And this is the bad news: Judge Karlin ruled that Edwards could not discharge $72,000 in federal student loans because Edwards was eligible to enter an income-driven repayment plan (IDR) that allowed her to make loan payments based on her income over a 20-year span.  At her current income, Edwards would only be obligated to pay $21 a month. Obviously, this token monthly payment will not cover accruing interest on $72,000, which means Edwards will never pay off her federal loans.

The Edwards case: Another chronicle of student-loan misery

Paula Edwards, age 36, obtained a bachelor's degree in education from Newman University, a small Catholic college located in Wichita, Kansas. Newman University is expensive; currently, tuition and fees total about $28,000 a year. Although Edwards worked as a paralegal while she was in school and took no unnecessary courses, she wound up owing $151,000 in student loans.

Edwards' degree from Newman qualified her for a job as an elementary school teacher. At the time of her bankruptcy proceedings, she was in her fourth year as a teacher, and her annual salary was only $35,300. Unless Edwards obtains more education, which she cannot afford, her salary is capped at $35,700.

Edwards' student-loan debt fell into two categories. First, she borrowed $72,000 in federal student loans, which were eligible for modified payment terms. Second, she took out  private loans totally $56,640 from Navient Solutions. Her private loans contained no provision for modified payment terms and bore interest at the rate of 9.75 percent. (She also borrowed $8,354 from Navient for Stafford loans, which she did not attempt to discharge).

Judge Karlin refused to discharge Edwards' federal loans. The Department of Education represented that Edwards was eligible to participate in the Department's REPAYE program, which allowed her to make payments based on her income over 20 years. At her current salary, DOE told the court, Edwards would only be obligated to make payments of $21 a month.  Edwards admitted she could make payments in this amount, and this debt was not discharged.

Applying the Brunner test, Judge Karlin discharged Edwards' private student loans

However, Judge Karlin discharged Edwards' private loans owed to Navient. The judge noted that private loans, unlike federal loans, contain no provisions for alternative repayment plans such as REPAYE. Applying the three-pronged Brunner test, Judge Karlin concluded that repaying the private loans would be an undue hardship for Edwards.

Judge Karlin ruled that Edwards met the first prong of the Brunner test, which required her to show she could not maintain a minimal standard of living if she were forced to pay back her private loans. Moreover, in Judge Karlin's opinion, Edwards met Brunner's second prong by showing that her financial situation was not likely to improve any time soon. As the judge pointed out, Edwards worked in a low-paying profession, and it was "highly unlikely" that Edwards' salary would increase significantly.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Judge Karlin ruled that Edwards met the third prong of the Brunner test, which obligated her to show she had made a good faith effort to repay her student loans. Although Edwards had made no payments on her private student loans over the previous six years, her payment history did not preclude a good faith finding.

As Judge Karlin explained, the Brunner test "requires the Court to determine if the debtor has made a good faith effort to repay the loan as measured by his or her efforts to obtain employment, maximize income and minimize expenses . . . .  A finding of good faith is not precluded by a debtor's failure to make a payment."

In Judge Karlin's view, Edwards had demonstrated "that she was really unable to make anything but a de minimus payment, if at all, on her student loans during the last six years." While it was true, the judge acknowledged, that Edwards had received tax refunds from time to time, good faith was not precluded by the fact that she had used the refunds to meet other pressing financial obligations rather than apply the refunds to her student loans.
[W]hile it would be better for her case had she paid even $10 a month from her tax refunds, in light of her life situation--attempting to raise two children on her own with very little child support, and with a small income even giving her teaching degree--her minimal efforts should qualify under the totality of circumstances. There was no evidence she willfully or negligently caused her own default, and the Court does not believe she did.
Conclusion: A Pyrrhic victory 

Edwards v. Navient Solutions, Inc. is a mixed bag for student-loan debtors. On the positive side, the court interpreted the "good faith" prong of the Brunner test in a sensible way. A debtor's good faith is not determined by the number of loan payments made but rather on whether the debtor made good faith efforts to repay student loans by maximizing income and minimizing expenses. In Judge Karlin's view, Edwards met Brunner's good-faith prong even though she made no payments on her private loans for six years.

Unfortunately, Judge Karlin refused to discharge Edwards' federal student loans due at least partly to the fact that Edwards was eligible to participate in REPAYE, which allows Edwards to make minimal payments of only $21 a month based on her current income. Since monthly payments of $21 won't cover accruing interest, Edwards' federal loans will negatively amortize--her debt will grow larger with each passing year.

Other courts have rejected creditors' arguments that college debtors should be forced into income-driven repayment plans as an alternative to bankruptcy relief. In the Abney case, the Lamento case and the Halverson case, courts explicitly recognized the psychological stress a long-term repayment plan can put on a debtor.

Paula Edwards won a Pyrrhic victory in a Kansas bankruptcy court. She shed $58,000 in private student-loan debt, but she was forced into a long-term repayment plan for her federal loans that will require her to make token payments for 20 years. Given Edwards' likely income trajectory, she will undoubtedly owe double the amount she borrowed at the end of the 20 year payment term--not a just outcome for a single mother of two who made a good faith effort to pay off her student loans.

References

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

Edwards v. Navient Solutions, Inc., 561 B.R. 848 (Bankr. D. Kansas 2016).

Halverson v. U.S. Department of Education, 401 B.R. 378 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2009).

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

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, 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. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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