Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Texas bankruptcy court slaps ECMC with punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing a Starbucks employee's paychecks in violation of the automatic stay provision: "The Ragged Edge"

Anyone who has dealt with Educational Credit Management Corporation as a debtor knows that it is a ruthless and heartless organization. As one of the federal government's student-loan debt collectors, it has harassed hapless creditors thousands of time. It was ECMC that opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month.

But the Roth case does not fully display ECMC's callousness.  A better illustration of its merciless behavior is found in Bruner-Halteman v. ECMC, decided by a Texas bankruptcy court last April.

Bruner-Halteman was a single mother who worked at Starbucks, living, as the bankruptcy court observed, "on the ragged edge where any adversity can be catastrophic." She owed about $5,000 on a student loan issued by Sallie Mae, and she was in default.

In 2012, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's  Starbucks wages, and she filed for bankruptcy, which, under federal law, triggers an automatic stay of all garnishment activities. ECMC received notice of the bankruptcy filing, and even participated as a creditor in Bruner-Halteman's bankruptcy proceedings. But it continued to garnish Bruner-Halteman's wages for almost two years.

In fact, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's wages 37 times AFTER she filed for bankruptcy--a clear violation of the law. Moreover, ECMC had no reasonable excuse for its misbehavior. In fact, ECMC refunded the wages it garnished on 17 occasions but kept on garnishing this poor woman's wages. Indeed, the garnishments did not stop until Bruner-Halteman  filed a lawsuit for damages in the bankruptcy court.

The bankruptcy court held a three-day trial on Bruner-Haltman's claims and heard plenty of evidence about the stress Bruner-Halteman experienced due to ECMC's illegal garnishments.  On April 8, 2016, the court awarded her actual damages of  about $8,000, attorney fees, and $74,000 in punitive damages.

Here is how the bankruptcy judge summarized ECMC's conduct:
ECMC's systematic, knowing, and willful disregard of the automatic stay and the protections afforded a debtor by the bankruptcy system was particularly egregious and offends the integrity of the the bankruptcy process. . . The indifference shown by ECMC to the Plaintiff and the bankruptcy process is gravely disturbing.
The court was particularly offended by the fact that ECMC repeatedly refunded the amounts it garnished but did not stop the garnishment process. "The callousness of the refund process is particularly rattling," the court wrote.

"In order to process a refund," the court noted, "an ECMC employee had to make the determination that the debtor had an active bankruptcy case, but that did nothing to convince ECMC that it should be cancelling the wage garnishments . . ." Instead, ECMC processed the refunds "at whatever pace it chose" while Bruner-Halteman "was doing everything she could to make ends meet."

At the conclusion of its opinion, the court summarized ECMC's behavior as follows:
A sophisticated creditor, ECMC, active in many cases in this district and across the country, decided that it could continue to garnish a debtor's wages with full knowledge that she was in a pending bankruptcy case. The Plaintiff, a woman who suffers from a severe medical condition, was hurt in the process. She was deprived of the full use of her paycheck. She incurred significant attorneys' fees in trying to fix the situation. A garnishment of a few hundred dollars may not be much to everyone, but to Kristin Bruner-Halteman, it meant a lot.
I will make just two comments about ECMC's merciless and cruel behavior in the Bruner-Halteman case. First, $74,000 might be a significant punitive-damages award for some organizations, but 74 grand is peanuts to ECMC.  After all, the Century Foundation reported recently that ECMC, a nonprofit organization, has $1 billion in cash and unrestricted assets. A punitive damages award of a million dollars would have been more appropriate.

Second, Ms. Bruner-Halteman was not awarded damages for ECMC's outlaw conduct until April 8, 2016, almost exactly four years after ECMC's first  wrongful garnishment.  Obviously, ECMC knows how to stretch out the litigatin process  to wear down its adversaries.

ECMC's name has appeared as a named party in more than 500 court decisions. A little dust-up like the one it had with Bruner-Haltemann is simply the price of doing business in the dirty commerce of harassing student-loan defaulters. And you can bet no one at ECMC missed a meal or lost any sleep because of the Bruner-Halteman case.

Perhaps Senator Elizabeth Warren, who publicly bemoans the excesses of the student loan industry, should hold Senate hearings and ask ECMC's CEO a few questions. Questions like: How much do ECMC executives pay themselves? How did ECMC accumulate $1 billion in unrestricted assets? And who is paying ECMC's attorney fees for hounding all those American student-loan borrowers--millions of whom, like Bruner-Halteman, are living "on the ragged edge"?

References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/








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