Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Immigrant obtains medical degree, can't find MD job. Bankruptcy judge discharges $400,000 in student-loan debt

Seth Koeut was born in Cambodia and came to the United States as a child. Like many immigrants, he applied himself energetically to obtain a better life. He graduated 6th in his high school class and went on to earn two bachelor's degrees from Duke University.

Mr. Koeut then went to medical school and received an MD from Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico. Somewhere along the way, he learned to speak English, Cambodian, Spanish, French, and Italian.

Although he passed his Medical Board exams, Koeut could not obtain a residency, which is a prerequisite to obtaining a medical license. After applying for residencies for five years, he gave up hope of becoming a licensed physician in the United States.

Over the years, Koeut held various jobs, including sales clerk at Banana Republic, a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant, and parking lot signaler.

Finally, Koeut filed for bankruptcy and asked Bankruptcy Juge Margaret Mann to discharge his student-loan debt, which totaled $440,000. A vocational evaluation expert assessed Koeut's job prospects and said Koeut would need additional training to meet his employment potential.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) opposed Koeut's application for a student-loan discharge and argued that he should be put in a long-term, income-based repayment plan (IBR). DOE also said Koeut failed to reach his employment potential because of a lack of initiative.

But Judge Mann disagreed. "A medical school graduate who works as a parking attendant and dishwasher cannot be described as lazy," she observed. She approved of Koeut's decision not to sign up for an IBR, which he rejected "because he could not carry the burden of his student debt without harming his opportunities for advancement."

In the end, Judge Mann discharged almost all of Koeut's student debt, finding that his current income and expenses did not permit him to maintain a minimum standard of living--even without making loan payments.

The Koeut case may be a sign that the bankruptcy judges are weary of DOE's incessant demands to put distressed student-loan debtors into IBRs. And perhaps they have grown tired of DOE's insistence that every bankrupt debtor's financial distress is entirely the debtor's fault.

Indeed, one cannot read Judge Mann's opinion without concluding that Seth Koeut had done everything possible to improve his standard of living and had handled his massive student-loan debt in good faith. Let us hope for more bankruptcy court decisions like Koeut v. U.S. Department of Education.


References

Koeut v. U.S. Department of Education, 622 B.R. 72 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2020).




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