Saturday, January 19, 2019

Income-Based Repayment Plans for Student Debtors: Is Betsy DeVos a Slave Trafficker?

To my astonishment, Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, publicly admitted that the federal student-loan program is a disaster. In a speech she gave last November, DeVos acknowledged that only 1 out of 4 student debtors (24 percent) is making loan payments that cover both principal and interest and that 43 percent of all student loans are in "distress."

Unfortunately, DeVos's Department of Education and its contracted debt collectors are making this crisis worse.  Probably 20 million Americans would be eligible to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy if these loans were treated like any other consumer debt (credit cards, auto loans, etc.) But the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" rule, interpreted harshly by many bankruptcy judges, has pushed millions of distressed student-loan debtors into lifetimes of servitude.

Every few months, however, a bankruptcy judge rules compassionately and sensibly and discharges some student loan debt. There is now a good-sized body of cases that have ruled in student debtors' favor.

You would think the Department of Education would encourage this trend, which would hasten relief to millions of destitute student borrowers. If DOE would endorse the Seventh Circuit's ruling in Krieger, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel's decision in Fern, the Sixth Circuit's ruling in Barrett, the Tenth Circuit's ruling in Polleys, and the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Court's ruling in Roth, we would be moving a big step forward toward granting debt relief to millions of honest but unfortunate student borrowers.

But that has not been what Betsy's DOE has done. DOE and its student-loan servicing companies (primarily Educational Credit Management Corporation) have fought bankruptcy relief in bankruptcy courts all over the United States.(The Roth, Myhre and Abney cases are particularly shocking).

And here's one current example. Vicky Jo Metz, a 59-year old woman, attempted to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy, and a sympathetic Kansas bankruptcy judge granted her a partial discharge. Metz had borrowed  $16,663  back in the early 1990s to attend community college but she was never able to pay off her student loans. In fact, she filed for bankruptcy relief more than once.

By the time she was in her late 50s, Metz's student -loan debt had grown to $67,000, because her loan balance continued to grow due to negative amortization.  Judge Robert Nugent concluded Metz could never pay back what she borrowed plus the accumulated interest, and he crafted a sensible and compassionate ruling. Judge Nugent forgave the accumulated interest on Metz's debt and ordered her to pay back the principal--$16,663.

That's a fair solution, and in my opinion, Judge Nugent's ruling was consistent with guidance from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Polleys decision. (Metz's Kansas bankruptcy court is in the Tenth Circuit.) The Polleys ruling had instructed lower courts not to interpret the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" provision in a way that would nullify the central purpose of bankruptcy, which is to give an honest debtor a "fresh start."

ECMC, DOE's chief pugilist in the bankruptcy courts, appealed Judge Nugent's decision. Metz should be placed in a long-term income-based repayment plan, ECMC argued, a plan that would require Metz to make monthly payments on her debt for as long as 25 years.

Judge Nugent had rejected ECMC's arguments in his court, pointing out that Metz would be 84 years old when her payment obligations ended. Moreover, Judge Nugent noted, Metz's debt would continue to grow because Metz's payments would not be large enough to cover accumulating interest. Judge Nugent calculated that Metz would owe $157,000 when her payment obligations ended--9 times what she borrowed back in the 1990s!

ECMC's arguments in Vicky Jo Metz's case are either deeply cynical or insane. Basically, ECMC, DOE's hired gun in this dispute, is asking a federal court to sentence Vicky Jo Metz to a lifetime of servitude--paying on a student-loan debt, which will grow bigger with each passing month.

In effect then, the Department of Education and ECMC are slave traffickers, condemning millions of Americans to repayment programs which can stretch over their entire lives.

In my view, the federal courts are poised to craft more compassionate standards for discharging student loans in bankruptcy, which would allow decent people like Ms. Metz to clear away debt they will never repay.  Unfortunately Betsy DeVos's Department of Education and ECMC are doing every thing they can to persuade the federal judiciary not to rule compassionately.

After all, there's a lot of money in the slave trade.



Cases

Abney v. U.S. Dept. of Educ. Corp.  (In re Abney), 540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Barrett v. Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp., (In re Barrett), 487 F.3d 353 (6th Cir. 2007).

Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp. v. Polleys (In re Polleys), 356 F.3d 1302 (10th Cir. 2004).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing (In re Fern), 553 B.R. 362 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2016), aff’d, 563 B.R. 1 (B.A.P. 8th Cir. 2017).

 Krieger v. Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp., 713 F.3d 882 (6th Cir. 2013).
Metz v. Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp., 589 B.R. 750 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2018), on appeal

Murray v. Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp. (In re Murray), 563 B.R. 52 (Bankr. Kan. 2016), aff’d, No. 16-2838, 2017 WL 4222980 (D. Kan. Sept. 9, 2017).

Myhre v. U.S. Dep’t of Educ. (In re Myhre), 503 B.R. 698; 2013 (Bankr. W.D. Wis. 2013).

Roth v. Educ. Educ. Mgmt. Corp. (In re Roth), 490 B.R. 908 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2013).

References

DeVos, Betsy, Secretary of Educ., Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Federal Student Aid’s Training Conferences (Nov. 27, 2018). Available at https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-us-secretary-education-betsy-devos-federal-student-aids-training-conferencet.



Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Department of Education's Heightened Cash Monitoring List: Students should check to see if their college is in financial trouble

Steve Rhode performed a valuable public service last month when he published the U.S. Department of Education's most recent Heightened Cash Monitoring List.  This is DOE's list of schools that have various financial concerns, including accreditation problems or missing audits, as well as schools that are on financially shaky ground.

DOE does not make the list easy to review. I could discern no organizational pattern. Public schools, private nonprofits, proprietary schools, and foreign schools are all listed together. In total, there are more than 500 schools on the list.

Not surprisingly, more than half the schools with financial concerns are proprietary schools--a total of 275 for-profit institutions.  A good share of these schools are devoted to hairstyling or beauty. Forty-six schools on DOE's HCM list have the word Beauty or Cosmetology in their names; and there are three massage schools on the list.

The list also includes a large number of private, nonprofit colleges or universities: 128 schools in all. A fair number have religious affiliations. Seven schools on the list have the word Baptist in their name, and three school names include the word Wesleyan, indicating a Methodist affiliation.  Twelve colleges have the word Christian in their titles, and there were several other schools with names suggesting a religious connection: Bethel, Bethany, Bible, Seminary, etc.

DOE listed 35 foreign colleges and universities on its Heightened Cash Monitoring List. You might find it surprising that the federal government is funding foreign study at the same time the national parks are closed, but it does. Among the 35 foreign schools with various financial concerns are Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Universiteit Van Amsterdam in the Netherlands, University of Aukland in New Zealand, Centro De Estudios Universitarios Xochicalco in Mexico; and Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland.

DOE's list includes a category of schools with high student-loan default rates. Schools with a three-year default rate of 40 percent and schools that have a three-year default rate of at least 30 percent for three years are ineligible for federal student-aid money. 

Remarkably, none of the 500 plus schools on DOE's HCM list were flagged for having a high student-loan default rate. How could that be when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos herself said that only 24 percent of student borrowers were paying down the principal and interest on their loans?

In my view, DOE's HCM list under reports the number of American colleges and schools that are in financial trouble. Nevertheless, the list is useful. 

First, the list confirms that a large number of small, private nonprofit colleges are in trouble, including many with religious ties. 

Second, we can see from the list that the largest share of financially troubled schools are for-profit institutions.

Finally, the list is a reminder that the U.S. Department of Education is loaning money for Americans to go to school overseas, which seems insane given the excess capacity in American higher education.

Of course not all schools on DOE's HCM list are experiencing serious financial problems. Some are on the list due to accrediting issues, inadequate administrative support, or audit irregularities. Nevertheless, all  postsecondary students should check the list to see if their school is on it. And parents who are helping their children decide where to go to college should also check the list. No one wants to enroll in a college that may close before the student graduates.

References

Rhode, Steve. Schools on the Warning List by the Department of Education--December 2018. Get Out of Debt Guy (blog), December 26, 2018.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Thanks to student loans, many Americans can't afford homes or children: Nice work, Congress!

Imagine if you will that you are sitting in the chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1965 just before Congress adopts the Higher Education Act, which launched our nation's huge experiment with student loans.

Now imagine that the Ghost of the Future appears before the lawmakers just the way the Ghost of Christmas Future appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol.

Before the vote, the Ghost issues this chilling warning: "Congress," the ghost whispers,"behold what will happen to this great nation if you launch a massive college loan program."

And this is the ghost's prediction:

First, within a half century, 45 million Americans will be burdened by student loans, which will amount to $1.5 trillion in outstanding indebtedness. Millions will be forced into 25-year repayment plans that are structured such that borrowers will never pay off their student loans--even if they make monthly payments for a quarter of a century.

Others will simply default on their loans--ruining their credit. By 2016, borrowers will be defaulting at the rate of 3,000 a day. Student-loan default rates will be much higher than default rates on mortgages, credit cards, or car loans.

Fueled by massive infusions of federal money, a corrupt and venal for-profit college industry will flourish, scamming millions of people--especially minorities, first-generation colleges students, and the poor.

A higher-education "arms race" will emerge, with colleges raising tuition to build luxury student housing, food courts, and recreational amenities like LSU's "Lazy River" water feature. Small, liberal arts college will shut their doors, unable to lure enough students who are willing to borrow $40,000 a year to attend a college no one has heard of.

Bad as these developments are, worse calamities will arise from an out-of-control student-loan program. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported, home ownership will decline as young people are unable to save enough money to buy a house due to oppressive student-loan burdens.

And finally, the nation's fertility rate will nosedive so that birthrates aren't high enough to sustain the nation's current population. Fewer children means fewer young adults in the labor force, which means fewer working people to support a growing population of the elderly.

"Now," the Ghost from the Future asks Congress, "do you really want to pass the Higher Education Act of 1965?" Of course, the answer would be no. 

If you think my fictional Ghost from the Future is over-sensationalizing the student-loan crisis, then you should read Declining Fertility in America, written by Lyman Stone of the American Enterprise Institute. "Birth rates in America are declining," Stone writes, "leading to one of the lowest rates of population growth on record, soon to become the lowest ever" (p. 3).

This crisis, which has mass economic implications, is not about devaluing children, Stone argues. Rather it is about barriers to childbearing.  Among these barriers, Stone identifies the following (p. 3):
  • Increased young adult debt service costs due to student loans;
  • Decreasing young adult homeownership due to rapidly rising housing costs and student loans;
  • Increasing years spent actively enrolled in education institutions, which tends to reduce birth rates dramatically while enrolled [italics inserted by me].

As Stone documents in his report, Americans are not having enough children to maintain our population--a population that is rapidly aging.

Their are several ramifications to the nation's plunging fertility rates. As Stone points out, a low fertility rate will put pressure on Social Security, Medicare and individual retirement accounts:
Without as many young workers to pay into Social Security and Medicare or buy the hot dogs and iPhone apps that make corporate shares worth holding, the retirement prospects for American workers will dim. Their 401(k)s will not be worth as much, they will have long lines at the hospital, and their Social Security checks will perhaps be smaller than they expected. In other words, in a low-fertility world, Americans may have to work longer and harder before retiring. (p. 6)
And much of this future suffering is due, as Stone asserts, to student loans.

Stone optimistically observes, that some barriers to childbearing, like student loans and housing costs, "may be readily addressed through various policy changes" (p. 3); but I am not so sure. In spite of all the suffering and hardship that student loans have unleashed on America's young people, we're really not talking much about the crisis, much less proposing solutions.

References

Rajashri Chakrabarti, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, & Wilbert van der Klaauw. At the N.Y. Fed: Press Briefing on Household Borrowing with Close-Up on Student Debt. April 3, 2017.

Lyman Stone. Declining Fertility in America. American Enterprise Institute (December 2018).


A Ghost from the Future could have predicted the catastrophe caused by the student loan program.









Sunday, December 30, 2018

Lord Abbett Affiliated v. Navient Corporation: "We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!"

More than a year ago, Lord Abbett Affiliated Funds sued Navient Corporation for fraud and securities violations, claiming it was deceived by Navient's representations about its student loan portfolio. Navient is a student-loan servicing company that manages about $300 billion in student-loan debt owed by 12 million borrowers.

According to Lord Abbett's second amended complaint (80 pages long), Navient "regularly and indiscriminately" granted forbearances to struggling student-loan borrowers, allowing those borrowers to temporarily stop making monthly loan payments Lord Abbett alleged that Navient did this in order to artificially report high income and to hide the fact that Navient was a riskier investment than it was portraying itself (para. 5).

"By overusing forbearances," Lord Abbett represented, "Navient artificially kept delinquencies, defaults, and charge-offs lower than they should have been, which in turned allowed [Navient] to report artificially low loan loss provisions as well as correspondingly high net incomes and EPS [earnings per share]" (para. 7).

Navient's practice of misusing forbearances, Lord Abbett argued, enabled Navient to list thousands of loans as current (para. 38), even though those loans weren't performing.  Lord Abbett maintains that Navient's fraudulent practices, once disclosed, caused its stock price to fall. Undoubtedly, Lord Abbett and other investors lost a ton of money when Navient stock nosedived.

As I said, Lord Abbett's amended complaint was filed more than a year ago and its lawsuit may no longer be active.  Navient's stock has declined in value from its high and is now worth less than $9 per share. In fact, one investment analyst recently recommended loading up on Navient's stock, which pays a nice dividend.

Personally, I don't give a fig whether Lord Abbett and its investors lost money in Navient stock. After all, Lord Abbett apparently didn't care about Navient's nefarious practices so long as it was making money. It's as if Navient was making that old used-car dealer pitch: "We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!"

Lord Abbott's complaint, however, is strong evidence that Navient's reckless practice of granting forbearances to distressed student borrowers obscures the number of people who are not paying back their student loans.  According to Lord Abbett (para 47), Navient granted four consecutive forbearances to more than half a million student-loan borrowers over a five-year period, allowing borrowers to skip their monthly loan payments while interest accrued and capitalized on their loans.

How many of these half million borrowers will ever pay off their individual student loans? I venture to say none of them will.


References

Lord Abbett Affiliated Fund v. Navient Corporation, Case No. 1-16-cv-112-GMS, Second Amended Complaint filed November 17, 2017 (D. Del.).







Sunday, December 23, 2018

We're checking our list! We're checking it twice! Has Navient been naughty? Chinnock v. Navient Corporation

Julie Anne Chinnock sued Navient Corporation,the U.S. Department of Education, and a Navient student-loan trust a few days ago, seeking two forms of relief. Ms. Chinnock wants compensation for an invasion of her privacy and a declaratory judgment that she does not owe Navient, DOE, or the trust any money.

As Chinnock said in her complaint, the controversy is quite simple and easy to resolve. "Defendants claim that they own certain student loans under which [Chinnock] is indebted to them, and [Chinnock] denies that defendants own such loans."

This case is reminiscent of the old robo-signing scandal during the home-mortgage crisis about ten years ago. Investors bought pools of home mortgages which were on the verge of default; but when the investors tried to foreclose on the homes, they couldn't prove they owned the underlying debt.

Apparently, Navient is in the business of packaging student loans into asset-backed securities and marketing them to investors. A lot of these student loans are going into default, but the buyers of those packaged loans are sometimes unable to show they have an ownership interest in the debt.

As Ms. Chinnock relates in her complaint, Navient is a bad actor:
Navient has a proven reputation for its predatory lending and collection practices. A 2014 Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Report found Navient's illegal loan servicing practices to include: (1) attempts to collect debts not owned by it; (2) unfounded negative threats (i.e. damage to borrower's credit), and (3) failing to correctly apply payments, among other predatory practices.
Ms. Chinnock also alleges that in 2017, "Navient was the most complained-about student loan company in all 50 states." She says that Navient was named in 530 federal lawsuits over a three-year period and that it was fined $97 million by the U.S. Justice Department for illegally charging students excessive interest rates.

Regarding her own complaint against Navient, Chinnock claims she paid off all her student loans in the amount of about $190,000 and was never delinquent on any of them (page 15 of her complaint). Nevertheless, in August 2018, Navient claimed she owed on eight additional loans totally several hundred thousand dollars.  Chinnock demanded proof that Navient's principals owned the loans, and Navient refused to provide any documentation.

Is this case a big deal? It is a VERY big deal. As Chinnock's lawsuit illustrates, lenders in the real estate industry and the student-loan business have gone to court to collect on debts they can't prove they own. Basically, they relied on a "take-my-word-for-it-loan-ownership ploy." For awhile, the courts played along, allowing so-called lenders to get judgments against people who denied they owed anything.

But it is a principle of basic law that a creditor must prove ownership of a debt in order to get a judgment against a debtor. So far at least, Navient hasn't produced a shred of evidence that Julie Anne Chinnock owes it money.

If Ms. Chinnock wins her lawsuit, Navient should get ready for plenty more.

References

Julie Anne Chinnock v. Navient Corporation, Navient Solutions, Navient Student Loan Trust 2014-3, & the United States Department of Education, Case: 1:18-cv-02935. Verified Complaint (Ohio Ct. Common Pleas, Dec. 20, 2018).








LSU Football Player Kills a Man in Scotlandville: Will He Still Play in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl?

An LSU football player killed Kobe Johnson, an 18-year-old man, yesterday evening in Scotlandville.

This is what we know. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, an LSU running back, and Jared Small, a linebacker, were trying to sell an "electronic item" when Johnson allegedly tried to rob them. One of the players--police haven't said which one--shot Johnson multiple times and he died in the backseat of a late-model Chevrolet Silverado truck.

The LSU athletes called 911 and stayed at the scene until the police arrived. Joe Alleva, LSU's Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics, called the incident "traumatic." Three lawyers showed up to represent Edwards-Helaire and Small, who claim self-defense.

As the Baton Rouge Advocate succinctly put it, there are "several unknowns about the incident."

First, the newspaper asked, which footballer player killed Johnson?

Second, what types of weapons were recovered and who owns them?

And finally--and most importantly--will Edwards-Helaire and Small suit up for the Playstation Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day?

And I have a few questions of my own:

Who is paying the three lawyers who miraculously showed up to represent the football players? Perhaps LSU's Mr. Alleva knows the answer to that question.

Who owns the stylish pickup truck where Johnson bled to death?

And finally, was it necessary for the football player (Small or Edwards-Helaire) to shoot Johnson multiple times?

Of course all these questions are trivial when compared to what's at stake: The 2019 Playstation Fiesta Bowl, which is only a week away.  After all, how can we compare the life of an obscure kid from North Baton Rouge to the upcoming epic battle between the LSU Tigers and the University of Central Florida?

Surely football fans all over Louisiana are down on their knees in prayer. Please God, if an LSU football player killed someone on Saturday night, let it be Mr. Small, who is only a walk-on linebacker, and not Edwards-Helaire, who is a star running back who probably has a great career ahead of him if he goes pro.

Death scene (photo credit: Travis Spradling, Baton Rouge Advocate)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

You should die before you pay off your student loans: Estate planning for elderly student-loan debtors

Steve Rhode posted an essay yesterday titled "Make Sure You Die Before Your Parent Plus and Federal Student Loans Are Forgiven." As Mr. Rhode explained, the federal government cancels all unpaid student loans owed by debtors who die before their loans are repaid. The cancelled debt is not a burden on the deceased debtor's estate.

On the other hand, people in 20- and 25-year income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) who receive loan forgiveness when they complete their repayment terms, will owe federal taxes on the amount of their forgiven loans. Why? Because the IRS considers a forgiven loan to be taxable income. If that tax bill comes due and the student-loan borrower can't pay it before dying, the unpaid tax becomes a claim on the decedent's estate.

"So," Mr. Rhode advises, "if you are older it may make more sense and cost less money overall if you extend out the repayment term past when you estimate you will die. When you pass, the student loan can pass with you."

Steve Rhode is absolutely right. You may think this is a technical detail of the student-loan program that only concerns a few people. But you would be wrong.

More than 7 million people are in IBRPs, and the number grows with each passing month. Nearly all these people will not have payed off their student loans before their repayment terms come to an end due to accruing interest. That means nearly all 7 million will receive tax bills when their accumulated student-loan debt is forgiven.

And these tax bills could be enormous. Remember Mike Meru, who borrowed $600,000 to go to dental school and is paying it back in an IBRP? The Wall Street Journal estimated that his debt would grow to $2 million by the time he completes his income-based repayment plan due to accruing, compound interest. That $2 million will be forgiven but it will also be taxable income for Dr. Meru.

It is true the IRS will not assess a forgiven-loan tax on people who are insolvent when their student loans are forgiven. But that's no comfort. How many people want to pay on student loans for 25 years and be insolvent on the day their loans are forgiven?

Of course there is a simple solution to this problem: Congress can pass legislation that would remove the tax liability  of people who complete IBRPs and have their student loans forgiven. In fact, this fix could probably be achieved through a federal regulation without Congressional action.

Alternatively, bankruptcy courts could simply discharge student-loan debt held by overburdened student-loan borrowers.  Some federal bankruptcy courts have concluded that IBRPs are not a feasible alternative to bankruptcy relief. They have countenanced the tax consequences of IBRPs, and some have recognized the enormous mental stress that debtors experience when they are burdened by student loans that can never be repaid. For example, the bankruptcy courts in the Fern case, the Martin case, and the Abney case have taken this sensible and compassionate view.

Perhaps Congress will do the right thing and fix this problem. After all, the Democrats will control the House of Representatives in January. If they were to present a bill to remove the tax consequences of forgiven student loans, what Republican would oppose it?

We shall see. In the Metz case, Judge Robert E. Nugent referred to an IBRP as a "pay-as-she-earns time bomb," and he is certainly correct. What a tragedy if this nasty time bomb goes off for millions of IBRP participants, when it could be so easily defused.

References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 553 B.R. 362 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2016), aff'd, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2017).

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

Vicky Jo Metz v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 589 B.R. 750 (D. Kan. 2018).

Martin v. Great Lakes Higher Education Group and Educational Credit Management Corporation (In re Martin), 584 B.R. 886 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2018).

Josh Mitchell. Mike Meru Has $1 Million in Student Loans. How did That Happen? Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2018.

Steve Rhode, Make Sure You Die Before Your Parent Plus and Federal Student Loans Are Forgiven. Get Out of Debt Guy (blog), December 17, 2018.