I know quite a bit about the student loan crisis. After studying both governmental and nongovernmental documents, I know the student-loan default rate is much higher than the government reports. According to the Department of Eduction, the three-year default rate is about 10 percent, but the people who stop paying on their loans is at least 30 percent. And among people who attended for-profit colleges, the default rate is at least 50 percent.
I also know a lot about college borrowers who try to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Shedding student loans through bankruptcy is difficult, but over the past three years or so, a number of bankruptcy courts have ruled in favor of college-loan debtors, showing both compassion and common sense.
But I dont' know who pays the lawyers for the student-debt collection agencies that fight student debtors in the bankruptcy courts or how much those lawyers get paid.
In particular, who paid the lawyers for Educational Credit Management Corporation, which opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on Social Security income of only $774 a month? And ECMC lawyers didn't just fight Ms. Roth in the bankruptcy court, it fought her all the way to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And everybody knew that Jane Roth's income was so low that she would have paid nothing on her student loans even if she lost her case.
Who paid the ECMC lawyers who appealed a bankruptcy decision in favor of George and Melanie Johnson, a couple with two school-age children who lost their home in a foreclosure proceeding?
And who ultimately paid the tab for ECMC to fight bankruptcy relief for Janice Stevenson, a woman in her 50s with a history of homelessness who was living on only at thousand dollars a month?
A New York Times article reported that ECMC has been accused of ruthless loan-collection tactics, and I would say ruthless is putting it mildly. And take my word for it, ECMC lawyers aren't working for free.
To paraphrase the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, I know a little about student loans and bankruptcy, and baby I can guess the rest. I think the taxpayers are paying ECMC's lawyers--either directly or indirectly.
In a letter issued last July, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Lynne Mahaffie wrote that student-loan debt collectors should take cost into account when deciding when to oppose bankruptcy discharge for distressed college-loan borrowers. But if ECMC is absorbing the cost of attorney fees to fight Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and Mr. and Mrs.Johnson, why would the Department of Education care what ECMC is spending in its collection efforts?
Certainly ECMC wasn't taking cost into account when it dragged Janet Roth through the federal courts for several years. There could have been no monetary gain to the taxpayers in fighting bankruptcy relief for Ms. Roth.
In the months to come, we will see if DOE really meant it when it authorized Mahaffie to say that DOE and its student-loan debt collectors would not fight bankruptcy discharge of student loans when it is not cost effective to do so.
My guess is this. ECMC will continue harassing student-loan debtors in the bankruptcy courts as long as its lawyers get paid for doing so. So if Lynn Mahaffie really meant what she said in that 2015 letter, DOE needs to change the system whereby ECMC lawyers get rich hounding people like Jane Roth, Janice Stevenson, and George and Melanie Johnson.
Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014. Acccessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/us/loan-monitor-is-accused-of-ruthless-tactics-on-student-debt.html?_r=0
Lynn Mahaffie. Undue Hardship Discharge of Title IV Loans in Bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings, July 7, 2015, GEN 15-13. Accesible at https://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN1513.pdf
Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013). Accessible at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/bap/2013/04/16/RothV%20ECMC%20opinion-FINAL%20AZ-11-1233.pdf