Thursday, December 31, 2015

These few, these happy few, this band of brothers and sisters: Going into bankruptcy court without lawyers, a few intrepid souls obtained relief from oppressive student-loan debt

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .

Henry V
William Shakespeare

More than 20 million people have college loans they can't pay back. For most of them, their oppressive debt grows larger every day, as interest continues to accrue. It is now common for people to owe more than three times the amount of money they borrowed for postsecondary education due to interest, penalties and fees that were tacked on to their original loans.

Had these suffering souls borrowed money to purchase a pizza franchise or buy a house, they could discharge their debt in bankruptcy. Likewise, if they were financially crushed by catastrophic medical expenses or a divorce, they could wipe away their debt through the bankruptcy process.

But because they borrowed money to acquire an education, student-loan debtors cannot discharge their debt in bankruptcy unless they meet the "undue hardship" standard set forth in the Bankruptcy Code--a difficult standard to meet.

In fact, most people are so convinced that it is impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy that they don't even try.  Jason Iuliano, in a 2012 law review article, researched bankruptcy court records and found that almost a quarter of a million people with student-loan debt filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but less than 300 of them even attempted to discharge their student loans.

And indeed, discharging student loans in bankruptcy is daunting. Debtors are forced to file an adversary action--in essence, a law suit, against their student-loan creditors. 

Because people in bankruptcy generally have no money, they can't afford to hire an attorney to represent them in an adversary proceeding. In contrast. their debtors--the Department of Education, Sallie Mae, or debt collection agencies like Educational Credit Management Corporation--have lots of experienced lawyers to defend their interests.

Nevertheless, a few intrepid student-loan debtors have filed adversary actions in bankruptcy court and have been successful, and many of them proceeded without lawyers. 

Here are three examples:

Alexandra Acosta-Conniff, an Alabama school teacher and single mother of two, filed an adversary proceeding to discharge $112,000 in student-loan debt. On March 25, 2015, a bankruptcy court ruled in her favor, discharging all her student-loan obligations. Acosta-Conniff won her case without a lawyer.

George and Melanie Johnson, a married couple in their thirties with two school-age children, filed for bankruptcy in Kansas, seeking relief from $83,000 in student loans. In February 2015, a bankruptcy court ruled in their favor. Like Acosta-Conniff, the Johnsons won their case without a lawyer.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, perhaps the nation's most ruthless student-loan creditor, was a defendant in both  cases, and ECMC appealed both rulings. But the bankruptcy judges in both cases wrote persuasive and well-researched decisions,and Acosta-Conniff and the Johnsons have good prospects for prevailing on appeal.

Finally, we have Michael Abney, a single father of two, who borrowed $25,000 to pursue an undergraduate degree he never obtained, and was living on less than $1200 a month. He went to bankruptcy court without an attorney and defeated the Department of Education. Abney's case was decided in November of this year. 

These few, these happy few . . . Let us salute the courage of these brave individuals, who went to bankruptcy court without lawyers and were victorious. And let us salute the bankruptcy judges who rose to their duty to give honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start--which is the very purpose of the American bankruptcy courts. 


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

Acosta-Conniff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 12-31-448-WRS, 2015 Bankr. LEXIS 937 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. March 25, 2015).

Johnson v. Sallie Mae & Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 11-23108, Adv. No. 11-6250, 2015 Bankr. LEXIS 525 (Bankr. D. Kan. Feb. 19, 2015).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Good article.... The missing point may be how much it costs a person to go through this process! And it is not just the financial cost but the toll on emotions and physical health! The DOE is a ruthless destroyer of people.

    For one of those currently in the middle of this nightmare - I cannot nor dare I say I am one of the Happy Few! Nothing to be Happy About!

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