Monday, July 6, 2020

Trejo v. U.S. Department of Education: A Texas bankruptcy judge grants student-loan discharge to 47-year-old single mom

The Sad Case of Jessica Trejo

In 2017, Jessica Trejo filed an adversary action in a Texas bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge $90,000 in student-loan debt. Ms. Trejo had borrowed about $65,000 to attend three Texas colleges. She also took out a Parent Plus loan for $13,522 to help pay for her eldest daughter's college education. And she owed a little over $7,000 in accrued interest.

At the time of trial, Ms. Trejo was a 47-year-old single mother with two dependent daughters. Both daughters were "afflicted with serious Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, psoriasis, eating disorders, severe depression, suicidal tendencies, and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" (p. 2). Ms. Trejo testified that she had to continually monitor her daughters' activities due to their depression and suicidal tendencies.

From 2008 until 2013, Ms. Trejo took college courses on a part-time basis at Tarrant County College, Hill College, and Texas Wesleyan University. Her ultimate goal was to get a degree in bilingual education. However, "because of her family and financial situation, she no longer intend[ed] to return to college or obtain a degree" (p. 3).

At the time she filed for bankruptcy, Ms. Trejo's financial situation was precarious. As Judge Mark Mullin observed, Ms. Trejo had not had a full-time job in the last 15 years. She had worked part-time at a nail salon, but she gave up that work to care for her daughters. Due to her daughters' disabilities, she received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks from the Social Security Administration, totaling $1470 a month.

The U.S. Department of Education opposed Ms. Trejo's request for student-loan relief, arguing that she should sign up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan. According to DOE, Ms. Trejo's income was so low that she would not be obliged to pay anything under such a program (p. 4).

Judge Mullin applies the Brunner test and discharges Ms. Trejo's student-loan debt.

Judge Mullin applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether it would work an undue hardship on Ms. Trejo if she were forced to repay her student loans. In Judge Mullin's view, Ms. Trejo met all three parts of that test.

First, the judge ruled that Ms. Trejo could not maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her two dependent daughters if forced to pay her student loans.

Second, Ms. Trejo had shown that her financial situation was not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.

Third, Judge Mullin ruled that Ms. Trejo had handled her student debt in good faith. Although she had not made any payments on her student loans, she never had the financial wherewithal to do so.

Implications of the Trejo decision

Judge Mullin made the right decision when he discharged Ms. Trejo's student-loan debt. Clearly, she could not maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her family and pay back her student loans. And, as Judge Mullins recognized, it was highly unlikely that Ms. Trejo's financial situation would improve significantly in the years to come.

The Trejo decision is a significant decision for at least three reasons. First, Judge Mullin flatly rejected DOE's tired argument that distressed student-loan debtors should be forced into long-term income-based repayment plans instead of getting their loans discharged in bankruptcy.  Over the years, DOE has snookered some bankruptcy judges with that silly argument, but those days may be over. It is absurd to deny an honest debtor bankruptcy relief in favor of a 25-year plan that requires the debtor to pay nothing.

Second, Judge Mark Mullin is one of a growing number of bankruptcy judges who are interpreting the Brunner test compassionately and with a dose of common sense. Judge Mullin took great care to write a judicial opinion that will be difficult to overturn on appeal. His decision contained 124 footnotes showing that his ruling was based on evidence in the trial record.

Finally, the Trejo decision prompts us to think about the enormous cost of higher education today, particularly when we consider how often the college experience does not lead to a good job.  Ms. Trejo borrowed about $65,000 to pay tuition at three colleges and got minimal benefit from the experience. Nevertheless, all three institutions that took Ms. Trejo's tuition money get to keep it.

We need to find a better way to provide low-income people like Jessica Trejo with the postsecondary education and training they need to become self-sufficient citizens. Clearly, the federal student loan program, as it is now operating, is not doing a good job.




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