Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Williams v. U.S. Department of Education: How does someone run up $400,000 in student-loan debt?

 In Greene v. U.S. Department of Education, Judge Richard Posner, a universally esteemed jurist, remarked that the criteria for determining "undue hardship" in student-loan bankruptcy cases are complex. Nevertheless, Judge Posner observed, "[t]he size of the debt is relevant--the larger it is, the more likely that imposing full liability on the debtor will produce an undue hardship . . ."

That makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, federal courts have refused to allow student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy even when the size of their college-loan debt is enormous and virtually impossible to pay off.

Williams v. U.S. Department of Education is a case in point. As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals explained, Williams began his college studies in 1982. "[O]ver the next three decades,[he] obtained a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a master's in communication, and a master's in business education." He financed these educational endeavors with student loans. By the time he filed for bankruptcy, he had run up $400,000 in student debt.

As the Seventh Circuit noted in its 2019 opinion, Williams had worked only part-time as a seasonal worker at a flower shop over the six previous years. His annual income was just $10,000.

After filing for bankruptcy, Williams entered into a 25-year, income-based repayment plan. Since his income was so low, he was required to pay nothing under that plan.

Williams tried to discharge this massive debt in an Illinois bankruptcy court, but he got nowhere. The bankruptcy judge refused to forgive his student loans, and the Seventh Circuit, in an opinion joined in by Judge Amy Barrett, affirmed the bankruptcy judge's decision.

Perhaps Mr. Williams was not the most attractive candidate for bankruptcy relief. As the Seventh Circuit pointed out: "If Williams continues what he has done for the last 6 years, which he concedes he can do, he need not pay anything on his debts for the next 25 years, at which point at least half the debt will be forgiven. That suggests no hardship."

Moreover, the Seventh Circuit continued, Williams had not provided any admissible evidence of a good-faith effort to repay his student loans.

Those efforts [ the appellate court observed] were virtually non-existent.  Despite his three degrees and his admitted ability to work full-time, he has worked only part-time in a floral shop for the last six years.  No admissible evidence explains the lack of higher-income work or why he has not, with about $3000 of annual net income, paid more than $140 toward lowering his debts.

I am not arguing that Williams should have gotten bankruptcy relief from his student loans. My point is simply this:  It is crazy for the federal government to issue student loans to an individual for three decades of college studies and then force that person into a 25-year repayment plan that allows him to pay nothing.

Surely we can all agree that this nutty system is unsustainable.

References

Greene v. U.S. Department of Education,  770 F.3d 667, 670 (7th Cir. 2015).

Williams v. U.S. Department of Education, 752 Fed.Appx. 363 (7th Cir. 2019).

The federal student loan program is nutty.


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