Friday, October 26, 2018

Augustin v. U.S. Department of Education: Adventures in Fantasy Land

In  April 2016, Pierre Augustin filed an adversary complaint in a Maryland bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge $210,000 in student loan debt. He told the court he had been burdened by this debt for 24 years, and that his financial circumstances did not permit him to pay it back. Augustin's wife also had student-loan debt: $120,000. Together the couple had accumulated a third of a million dollars in student debt.

Augustin had three postsecondary degrees: a bachelor's degree in political science from Salem State University in Massachusetts, a master's degree in public administration from Suffolk University in Boston, and an MBA from University of Massachusetts Lowell. Seventeen years after receiving his MBA degree, he was working  as a security guard.

Augustin claimed he was unable to find a job in the field of his degrees, but together he and his wife earned a net income of more than $6,000 a month. The Department of Education (DOE) offered Augustin a 25-year income-based repayment plan that would allow him to pay $331 a month toward his student loans or a 15-year plan with payments of $1,138 a month.

Augustin did not accept DOE's offers. Under the 25-year plan, he argued, he would face a lifetime of indebtedness. Moreover, when the payment term ended, he would face massive tax liability for the amount of forgiven debt. The 15-year plan was also unacceptable, he maintained, because it would not allow him to save money for his retirement.

Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Catliota was not sympathetic. The judge applied the three-pronged Brunner test to determine whether Augustin's student debt constituted an undue hardship.  Under Judge Catliota's analysis, Augustin failed all three prongs.

First, Judge Catliota noted, Augustin could make monthly loan payments of $331 under the 25-year repayment plan while maintaining a minimal standard of living. Second, Augustin could not show additional circumstances that would make it impossible to make monthly payments in that amount.

Finally, Judge Catliota ruled, Augustin had not demonstrated good faith. Augustin had not made a single payment on his student loans for more than a quarter of a century. "By his own  admission,"the judge pointed out, "Mr. Agustin deferred his loans for approximately 26 years."

Moreover, Mr. Augustin was not willing to accept DOE's offer of a  manageable repayment plan. In Judge Catliota's view, "This shows lack of good faith on [Augustin's] part."

Not surprisingly then, Judge Catliota refused to discharge Mr. Augustin's student debt. Applying the three-part Brunner test, Augustine was not entitled to relief.

Perhaps Judge Catliota reached a just outcome in the Augustin case. But let's look at the case in a larger context. Why does the Department of Education loan people money for multiple college degrees and then permit borrowers to make no payments on those loans for 25 years?

Why does the government push people into 25-year repayment plans that allow debtors to make monthly payments so low that they don't cover accruing interest? Even if Mr. Augustin agrees to make income-based payments of $331 a month for 25 years, he will never pay back the $210,000 he owes.

Finally, why apply the Brunner test to people like Mr. Augustin? Why not simply ask whether Mr. Augustin and his wife will ever pay back $330,000 in student-loan debt? The answer is clearly no.

In short, Augustin v. Department of Education is another adventure in Fantasy Land, which is what the federal student-loan program has become. Our government has rigged an insane student-loan program that is trapping millions of people to a lifetime of indebtedness from which there is no relief.

References

Augustin v. U.S. Department of Education, 588 B.R. 141 (Bankr. D. Md. 2018).

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