This is Ms. Erkson's story as told by Judge Carey. In 1998, when she was in her forties, Erkson enrolled at Vermont College of Norwich University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. She took out student loans to finance her studies and graduated in 2002 with considerable debt.
After graduating, Erkson worked at various community agencies in order to obtain the conditional licenses necessary to work as a licensed counselor. From 2002 through 2008, she worked at a private counseling service, but her job was terminated due to funding constraints. At some point she defaulted on her undergraduate loans.
Erkson then entered graduate school at Salve Regina University, and she obtained a master of arts degree in Holistic Counseling in 2011. Thereafter she held a series of counseling jobs and maintained a private practice, but she did not make enough money to sustain herself and pay back her student loans.
The U.S. Department of Education and ECMC objected furiously to releasing Erkson from her student debt. She had not shown good faith, they said, because she had not agreed to enter a long-term income-based repayment plan. They also objected to some of Erkson's expenses. She should not have hired a dog walker, they contended. Nor should she be leasing an automobile. They even criticized her for going to graduate school since her master's degree did not improve her income level.
Fortunately for Barbara Erkson, Judge Carey is a compassionate man; and he waved aside all her creditors' cold-hearted objections.
Plaintiff impresses the Court as a hard-working woman who chose an area of study which, due to changes in federal laws and regulations, proved less profitable than she anticipated. If the Court applied such stringent standards to all student loan challenges, anyone who failed to correctly read the tea leaves of the future and incurred student debt in an area that technology, societal preferences, or legislation later made obsolete would be ineligible for a discharge. The [Bankruptcy] Code simply does not go so far.Judge Carey rejected the creditors' argument that Erkson handled her loans in bad faith. They pointed out that her loans were almost always in deferment, forbearance or in default and thus she had made relatively few loan payments. Nevertheless, Judge Carey wrote, "neither DOE nor ECMC challenged [Erkson's] testimony that she struggled to find full time work until 2002 or that, from 2002 until 2008, she did not generate sufficient income to maintain a minimal standard of living and repay her student loans." In Judge Carey's opinion, Erkson's failure to make any meaningful loan payments was "the result of her meager income and not evidence of bad faith."
Interestingly, Erkson argued that she suffered from a hearing impairment that hindered her efforts to find and keep a good job. Judge Carey accepted Erkson's testimony on that point, but he made clear his decision did not turn on Erkson's health situation. Her current financial condition and future economic prospects entitled Erkson to a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans, the judge ruled, without considering her hearing impairment.
What are we to make of the Erkson decision?
First, DOE and ECMC are bullies. Both agencies almost always oppose undue-hardship discharges for distressed student-loan debtors, regardless of individual circumstances. They always argue that debtors handled their student loans in bad faith and that they should be denied a discharge if they fail to sign up for a 25-year repayment plan. They always quibble about a debtor's routine expenses and pore over a debtor's every expenditure in humiliating detail.
Second, the Erkson decision is a good one for millions of people who took out student loans to pursue careers that did not work out like they planned. How many people have enrolled in chicken-shit for-profit colleges, third-tier law schools, or overpriced professional programs only to learn their educational investments would never pay off?
In the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education and ECMC, DOE's corporate hit man, such people are losers; and their inability to pay back their student loans is prima facie evidence of bad faith.
But Judge Carey disagreed. People who make a sincere effort to find a good job and wind up unable to pay back their student loans while maintaining a minimal standard of living are entitled to bankruptcy relief: period. It's time DOE and ECMC get that message.
|The Department of Education and ECMC are bullies.|
Erkson v. U.S. Department of Education, 582 B.R. 542 (Bankr. D. Me. 2018).