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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

College dropouts who don't pay off their student loans: The village of the damned

About 70 percent of high school graduates go on to college, but a lot of them drop out before getting their college degrees. And a good number of dropouts took out student loans to finance their studies.

What happens to these people?

A recent survey polled college dropouts who had outstanding student loans; and this is what the pollsters found.
  • Respondents reported that they had, on average, almost $14,000 in student-loan debt.
  • More than half of college dropouts said they were not making any payments on their student loans.
  • More than a third of the survey respondents (35 percent) said they had not made a single payment on their student-loan debt
What are we to make of this?

First of all, indebted college dropouts are probably underestimating how much they owe on student loans. Other studies have shown that a lot of student borrowers are hazy about how much they borrowed, and some don't know the interest rate on their loans. Quite a few don't know the difference between federal loans and private loans, and aren't sure which type of loans they have.

So it seems fair to conclude that if indebted college dropouts report that they owe an average of $14,000, they probably owe more--maybe a lot more. For one thing, dropouts who aren't making loan payments may not understand how much accrued interest has been added to their loan balances. And dropouts who defaulted on their student loans may not realize that the debt collectors undoubtedly added default penalties to their accumulated debt.

It is true that some dropouts who aren't making student-loan payments may have obtained economic hardship deferments that temporarily excuse them from making monthly loan payments. But interest accrues on a student loan while it is in economic hardship status, which means that the loan balance is growing month by month.

This is what we can say for sure: Last year, 1.1 million student-loan borrowers defaulted on their loans at an average rate of 3,000 people each day.  And some percentage of that number are people who took out student loans to attend college and then dropped out.

Indebted college dropouts don't know it, but they have entered the village of the damned. If they defaulted on their student loans, the loan balances ballooned due to default penalties. Even if their loans are in forbearance, interest continues to accrue. At some point, these unfortunate dropouts will realize they are carrying debt loads they can't pay off.

At that point, they will only have two options. They can enter an income-driven repayment plan, which will stretch their payments out for 20 or 25 years. Can you imagine making monthly payments on student loans for a quarter of a century even though you dropped out of college without a degree?

The other option is bankruptcy, and that option is going to be more and more viable as the bankruptcy courts wake up to the fact that the student-loan program is a catastrophe that has wreaked misery and suffering on millions.

In my view, now is the time for people who are overwhelmed by student debt to file for bankruptcy.  It is true that student-loan debtors must prove undue hardship in order to get bankruptcy relief. But, as Matt Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone documented, a lot of people are suffering at the undue hardship level.


College droputs with student-loan debt: The village of the damned


References

Tyler Durden. (2017,November 7). About 33% of Students Drop Out of College; Here's How Many Go On to Default On Their Student Debt. zerohedge.com (blog).

LendEDU (2017, November 2). College Dropouts and Student Debt. LendEDU.com (blog).

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

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




Saturday, October 7, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray discharged more than $200,000 in student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court and their victory was affirmed on appeal: Good news for middle-income college borrowers

In a previous essay, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties who defeated Educational Credit Management Corporation in a Kansas bankruptcy court.  ECMC appealed, and the Murrays prevailed again--a victory that has important implications for middle-income student-loan debtors.

The Murrays took out student loans in the 1990s to obtain undergraduate degrees and master's degrees. Their total indebtedness was $77,000, which they consolidated in 1996 at an interest rate of 9 percent.

Over the years, the Murrays paid $54,000 toward paying off these loans--70 percent of the amount they borrowed. But they obtained economic hardship deferments during periods of financial stress, which allowed them to skip some loan payments.  And they entered into an income-based repayment plan to lower their monthly payments to a manageable level.

Although the Murrays handled their student loans in good faith, interest on their debt continued to accrue; and they made no progress toward paying off their debt. In fact, when they filed for bankruptcy in 2014, their loan balance had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

Judge Dale L. Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, gave the Murrays a partial bankruptcy charge. It was clear, Judge Somers ruled, that the Murrays could not pay off their total student-loan indebtedness and maintain a minimal standard of living. And it was also clear that their financial situation was not likely to change. Finally, Judge Somers concluded, the Murrays had handled their student loans in good faith--an essential requirement for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

On the other hand, Judge Somers determined, the Murrays could pay off the original amount they borrowed ($77,000) and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, Judge Somers discharged the accumulated interest on the Murrays' debt, but required them to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

ECMC, the Murrays' ruthless creditor, appealed Judge Somers' decision. ECMC argued, as it always does, that the Murrays should be put in a long-term income-based repayment plan (IBR) that would last from 20 or 25 years.

But U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia, sitting as an appellate court for the appeal, affirmed Judge Somers' decision. "The court agrees with Judge Somers' findings and conclusions that [the Murrays] made a good faith effort to repay their loans," Judge Murguia wrote.

Significantly, Judge Murguia, ruling in the capacity of an appellate judge, explicitly rejected ECMC's argument that the Murrays should be placed in an IBR and that none of the Murrays' $311,000 debt should be forgiven.

"The court disagrees," Judge Murguia wrote. "Under the circumstances of this case, debtors' payments under an IBR plan are insufficient even to stop the accrual of additional interest, and such payments directly contravene the purpose of bankruptcy."  Judge Murguia noted that Judge Somers had not discharged all of the Murrays' indebtedness--only the accumulated interest. "He discharged that portion--the interest--that had become an undue hardship on debtors, denying them a fresh start."

ECMC v. Murray is an important case for two reasons: First, this is one of the few student-loan bankruptcy court decisions that have granted relief to middle-income student borrowers. The Murrays' combined income was about $95,000.

Second, the key ruling by both Judge Somers and Judge Murguia was their finding that the interest on the original debt would constitute an undue hardship for the Murrays if they were forced to pay it back. Furthermore, this would be true even if the Murrays were placed in an IBR because the monthly payments under such a repayment plan were insufficient to stop the accrual of interest.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in circumstances very similar to the Murrays. Their loan balances have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled due to accumulating interest. People in this situation will never pay off their total indebtedness. But most of these people, like the Murrays, can pay off the amount they originally borrowed if only the accumulated interest were wiped out.

Let us hope student loan debtors situated like the Murrays will learn about ECMC v. Murray and find the courage to file bankruptcy and seek a discharge of their student loans--or at least the accumulated interest.  After all, it is the accumulated interest, penalties and fees that have put millions of student borrowers in a hopeless situation. The Murray decision offers a fair and reasonable solution for these people and gives them a fresh start. A fresh start, after all, is the core reason that  bankruptcy courts exist.


References

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016), aff'd, No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).


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 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).



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.


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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).