Showing posts with label Brunner test. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brunner test. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Clavell v. U.S. Department of Education: A New York bankruptcy judge takes refreshing approach to "undue hardship" in student-loan bankruptcy case

Clavell v. U.S. Department of Education: An Introduction

Christian Clavell, a 35-year-old sales employee with Coca-Cola, filed for bankruptcy in the hope of discharging $96,000 in student loans.  The U.S. Department of Education opposed his application for relief, arguing that Clavell could afford to make loan payments of $492 a month under REPAYE, one of DOE's long-term, income-based repayment plans.

At first blush, DOE's position seems reasonable. Clavell was projected to have an income of $77,000 a year, he was single, and he lived inexpensively in his grandfather's home. Fortunately for Clavell, however, Judge Michael E. Wiles, dug deeper into Clavell's financial situation and concluded that he was entitled to a partial discharge of his student loans that only requires him to make loan payments of $250 a month over a 25-year term.

In reaching his decision, Judge Wiles endorsed the views expressed by Bankruptcy Judge Cecelia G. Morris in Roseberg v. New York State Higher Education Services Corporation.  Like Judge Morris, Judge Wiles rejected the "certainty of hopeless" standard that some bankruptcy judges have adopted to justify their decisions to deny relief to distressed student-loan borrowers.

And, like Judge Morris, Judge Wiles called for a less harsh interpretation of the Second Circuit's Brunner opinion. Brunner has been used by bankruptcy judges all over the country to make it virtually impossible for honest but unfortunate student-loan debtors to obtain the "fresh start" that the bankruptcy courts were established to provide. Together, Rosenberg and Clavell signal the possibility that bankruptcy judges would like to see the Brunner test softened by the federal appellate courts.

Judge Wiles applies the three-part Brunner test to Mr. Clavell's financial situation.

In analyzing Clavell's claim, Judge Wiles applied the three-part Brunner test, first articulated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  Part one of that test required Clavell to show that he could not pay off his student loans and still maintain a minimal standard of living.

Judge Wiles pointed out that Clavell made child-support payments of $946 a month and that DOE did not take this obligation into consideration when it calculated how much Clavell would have to pay under the REPAYE plan. In Judge Wiles' view, DOE's calculations were "too mechanical" and did not take into account Clavell's actual financial circumstances" (p. 10).

Furthermore, the judge noted, REPAYE is actually a misnomer. "[T]he mere fact that the REPAYE payments are low, or in some cases even zero, does not really mean that a debtor can afford to 'repay' the underlining loans" (p. 11). On the contrary, the fact that some people are eligible to make lower payments on their student debts under REPAYE may actually show that these people cannot afford to repay their underlying loans.

Looking at Clavell's expenses, Judge Wiles subtracted Clavell's child-support payments to determine his take-home pay--only $3,242 a month. The judge concluded that Clavel's modest contributions to his retirement plan ($121 a month) were reasonable expenses and not a "luxury" item as DOE maintained.
I disagree with the DOE's contention that modest 401(k) contributions of the kind at issue here are "luxury" items. One of the financial obligations of a responsible adult is to make reasonable provisions for the future, both for the adult's own good and for the good of his or her family.  (p. 20)
Indeed, Judge Wiles reasoned, "[r]equiring a debtor to forego making reasonable provisions for his and his family's future living expenses would itself be an 'undue hardship,' even if it would not immediately deprive the debtor of food or shelter" (p. 20).

At the time of trial, Clavell lived with his grandfather, paying him $956 per month in rent. DOE argued that Clavell's "real" rent obligations were less than $956, apparently because Clavell paid rent to a relative. But Judge Wiles rejected DOE's argument, finding that Clavell's rent obligations were reasonable.

Remarkably, Judge Wiles also determined that Clavell's own estimation of his food and housekeeping costs were higher than Clavell himself claimed.  Reasonable costs for these items was not $265 a month, as DOE contended, or even $400 a month, as Clavell asserted. Instead, Clavell's reasonable housekeeping costs were $590.

In sum, taking all of Clavell's reasonable expenses into account, the judge concluded that Clavell could not maintain a minimal standard of living if forced to repay his student loans.

Turning to part two of the Brunner test, Judge Wiles ruled that Clavell had met his burden of showing that his financial circumstances were not likely to change over "a substantial portion of the loan repayment period" (p. 36). Although Clavell might make more money if he obtained a job in his chosen field of law enforcement, Clavell had not been able to get such a job, and the judge found no evidence to suggest that Clavell had not made a good-faith effort to maximize his income.

Finally, Judge Wiles concluded that Clavell had handled his student-loan obligations in good faith, and thus, he met part three of the Brunner test.  The judge acknowledged that Clavell had made no payments on his student loans since he consolidated them in 2013. Nevertheless, Judge Wiles reasoned, "a debtor's 'good faith' must be determined based on the situation in which the debtor found himself."

In Clavell's case, Judge Wiles observed:
[T]he loan servicers themselves recognized that Mr. Clavell's circumstances did not permit him to make payments and thus they suspended Mr.Clavell's payment obligations and put the loans in forbearance as a result. In fact, Mr. Clavell never defaulted on his student loans. Instead, his payment obligations have been suspended. Mr. Clavell's failure to make payments was hardly a sign of "bad faith" when the lender acknowledged that Mr. Clavelll could not make such payments and when the lender agreed to suspend his obligation to make them. (p. 37)
Good faith, Judge Wiles ruled, should be measured by a debtor's efforts to obtain employment, maximize his income, minimize expenses, and undertake all other reasonable efforts to repay his student' loans.
The evidence shows that Mr. Clavell did his best to maximize his employment opportunities and his income and to minimize his expenses. He attempted to find a position in law enforcement but was unable to do so despite diligent efforts. He has worked in a sales position and . . . there is no suggestion that he passed up any better opportunities that were available. He has a large child support obligation that he must honor and other reasonable expenses that do not permit him both to maintain a minimal standard of lving and to repay his loans. (p. 37).
Accordingly, Judge Wiles reduced the amount of Clavell's loan balance such that Clavell would pay off the remaining debt in an amount that could be paid in 25 years with monthly payments set at $250 per month.

 Conclusion

Clavell v. U.S. Department of Education is important for several reasons:

First, Judge Wiles endorsed the view of Judge Cecelia G. Morris in the Rosenberg decision that the Brunner test has been interpreted too harshly by many bankruptcy judges. Judge Wiles flatly rejected the "certainty of hopelessness test" that some bankruptcy courts have adopted to justify their decisions to deny overburdened debtors relief from their student-loan debts.

Second, Judge Wiles ruled that a student debtor's child-support payments should be taken into account when determining whether the debtor can maintain a minimal standard of living and still pay off student loans. Judge Wiles also ruled that a student-loan debtor is entitled to make modest contributions to his or her retirement plan and that such payments are not a luxury.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Judge Wiles ruled in Clavell's favor regarding the fact that Clavell had not made monthly loan payments while his loans were in forbearance.  The judge concluded that DOE's decision to grant Clavell a forbearance from making payments constituted evidence that DOE itself acknowledged that Clavell was unable to repay his student loans while maintaining a minimal standard of living.

References

Clavell v. U.S. Department of Education, No. 15-12343, Adv. Pro. No. 16-01181 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2020).

Rosenberg v. New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, 18-35379, 2020 LEXIS 73 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2020).

Bankruptcy Judge Michael E. Wiles

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Little v. U.S. Department of Education: Should middle-aged people take out student loans to attend college?

Walter Lee Little and Linda Leticia Little, a married couple, are 58 years old. About thirteen years ago, they both took out student loans to take courses at various community colleges; but they never obtained degrees. They filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and applied to have their student-loan debt forgiven.

Like many student-loan debtors, they dived into the world of bankruptcy law without an attorney. The U.S. Department of Education was represented by a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The Littles filed an adversary action to obtain student-loan debt relief, but their case never went to trial. In June 2019, the Department of Education (DOE) filed a motion for summary judgment against the Littles, and Bankruptcy Judge Robert L. Jones granted DOE's motion in October.

In ruling against the Littles, Judge Jones applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether the Littles met the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard.  Regarding part one, Judge Jones said there was a factual dispute regarding whether the Littles could maintain a minimal standard of living if they were forced to repay their student loans.

Regarding Brunner's other two tests, Judge Jones flatly ruled against the Littles. The Judge ruled that the Littles could not show that "additional circumstances" would persist for "a significant portion of the repayment period of the loans . . ." (p. 859, quoting Brunner). Remarkably, Judge Jones said the Littles must show "a certainty of hopelessness" about their financial future, a standard that some other courts have rejected. 

The Littles argued that they were in their late 50s and nearing retirement. And they also pointed out that Mr. Little suffered from a variety of medical conditions and was disabled.

Judge Jones was entirely unsympathetic. "Mr. Little says that he suffers from a variety of medical conditions," the Judge observed, but those conditions "do not prevent Mr. Little from collecting disability payments or pension payments" (p. 860).

Regarding Mrs. Little's age and health prospects, Judge Jones said that "Mrs. Little was older when she went back to school and knew she would have to make payments in her later years" (p. 862).

In sum, Judge Jones ruled,  "The Littles chose to go to school later in life; the repayment of debts will thus last into their later years. Age... does not prevent the Littles from collecting pension payments; instead, their monthly income should increase upon turning 65" (p. 861).

As to Brunner's good faith test, Judge Jones ruled against the Littles as well. The Judge emphasized that the Jones had not made a single payment on their student loans

My sympathies are entirely with the Littles.  Judge Jones' decision partly rested on the fact that the Littles will receive pensions when they turn 65 based on their employment with ATT.  But those pensions are quite small. Mr. Little will receive about $850 a month and Mrs. Little anticipates getting $700 a month.  Judge Jones also noted that Mr. Little is entitled to receive a $900 disability check.

But these three sources of income together only amount to a gross income of $2450 per month--barely enough to live on.  It is completely unreasonable to expect the Littles to make student-loan payments during their retirement years to pay for educational experiences that apparently did not benefit them financially.

Would the Littles have a better case had they made some student-loan payments? Perhaps. But the Littlesstruggled financially for a variety of reasons that were beyond their control. They submitted documentation that they had been on food stamps for a time and had significant medical expenses (p. 857).

Judge Jones fortified his decision with citations to many legal opinions, but his opinion failed to note how much the Littles had borrowed to attend college or the interest rate on their loans. Nor was it clear from Judge Jones' opinion how long the Littles' loans were in forbearance or deferment, periods when they had no legal obligation to make student-loan payments.

In my opinion, the Department of Education considers Mr. and Mrs. Little to be collateral damage from an out-of-control student loan program that shovels federal money to colleges and universities without regard to the quality of their programs.

Judge Jones' Little decision shows that it is risky for middle-aged people to take out student loans to attend college. Moreover, although Judge Jones may not realize it, his decision in Little v. U.S. Department of Education undermined the ability of Mr. and Mrs. Little to live securely and in dignity when they reach their retirement years.


References

Little v. U.S. Department of Education, 607 B.R. 853 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2019).














Monday, January 13, 2020

Rosenberg v. ECMC: A NY bankruptcy judge cuts through the crap and discharges $221,000 in student-loan debt

Less than a week ago, Bankruptcy Judge Cecelia G. Morris cut through the crap and granted a student-loan discharge to Kevin Rosenberg, a Yeshiva University law graduate. Judge Morris's opinion was so compassionate and surprising that the lyrics of a traditional Christmas carol come to mind: "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

Judge Morris's decision may be appealed. If so, and her ruling is affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, it will have enormous implications for millions of student loan debtors.

As even the nation's politicians now realize, the federal student-loan program has run amok like a crazed bull in Pamplona. Millions of distressed but honest student debtors need bankruptcy relief from crushing student debt, which now totals $1.6 trillion.

Unfortunately, many bankruptcy judges have denied student-loan debt relief even under the most heartwrenching circumstances. In most cases, these harsh judges have relied on the famous Brunner test to plunge the knife into the hearts of desperate student-loan borrowers.

The Brunner test, first articulated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987, requires the debtor to show three things to discharge student-loan debt: 1) The Debtor cannot pay off the loan and maintain a minimal standard of living, 2) The debtor's precarious financial circumstances are likely to persist over the term of the repayment period, and 3) The debtor made good faith efforts to repay the student loans.

Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the Department of Education's designated assassin in the bankruptcy courts, almost always takes the position that the debtor cannot meet even one of the Brunner test's three prongs. The debtor is often forced to defend against ECMC's tactics without a lawyer; standing like Christ before Pontius Pilate--depicted by ECMC almost like a common criminal who deserves a public flogging.

Again and again, ECMC has argued to the courts that a debtor is unworthy of bankruptcy relief because the debtor lived above a minimal lifestyle. Maybe a debtor eats at fast-food restaurants a few times a month--what a spendthrift! Maybe the debtor has a pet-- an outrageous extravagance! Maybe the debtor rents an apartment with an extra bedroom or makes modest deposits into a retirement account--how recklessly irresponsible!

A summary of Judge Morris' opinion

And then--just a few days ago--a remarkable thing happened: Judge Morris cut through ECMC's crap and applied the Brunner test the way it was originally meant to be applied.  Applying a correct and well-reasoned interpretation of Brunner, she concluded that Kevin Rosenberg was entitled to relief from his student debt--about $221,000.

Here is a summary of Judge Morris's reasoning.

First, to determine whether Rosenberg can maintain a minimal standard of living if forced to repay his student loans, Judge Morris simply looked at the schedule of income and obligations that Rosenberg filed when he applied for bankruptcy. That schedule attested that Rosenberg's net monthly income was $2,456 and his expenses amounted to $4,005. Clearly, Rosenberg met the first prong of the Brunner test.

Second, the judge applied the Brunner test's second prong, which asks whether Rosenberg's financial circumstances were likely to persist over the "repayment period" of the student loans. Judge Morris pointed out that Rosenberg's repayment period had ended after his creditor accelerated his loan and demanded payment in full. Thus, it was evident that Rosenberg passed the second prong of the Brunner test.

Finally, Judge Morris ruled that Roseberg met Brunner's third prong; he had made good faith efforts to repay his student loans. According to the Judge's analysis, Rosenberg had only missed six payments over a 13-year period.  Indeed, for 10 of those 13 years, his loan was in forbearance or deferment and he wasn't required to make any payments.

Judge Morris ruled in favor of Mr. Rosenberg by interpreting the Brunner test as it was originally meant to be interpreted. Brunner, she noted, dealt with a debtor who filed for bankruptcy only a few months after graduating from college. Over the years, however, courts have incorrectly applied punitive standards to Brunner, making it almost impossible for worthy student-loan borrowers to obtain bankruptcy discharges.

"This Court will not participate in perpetuating these myths," Juge Morris wrote. She then applied Brunner to Mr. Rosenberg's situation as she believed the Second Circuit meant for the test to be applied.

What does the Rosenberg decision mean for 45 million student-loan debtors?

As I stated above, if Judge Morris's Rosenberg opinion is appealed and upheld by the Second Circuit, the implications are enormous.  A majority of federal circuits rely on the Brunner test to determine whether a debtor's student loans constitute an undue hardship and are dischargeable. Most federal courts have misinterpreted Brunner so harshly that many legal commentators maintain that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy.

If the Second Circuit endorses Judge Morris's opinion, then bankruptcy courts across the country that have relied on Brunner for the past three decades will feel pressure to abandon their misinterpretation of Brunner in order to harmonize with Judge Morris' ruling.  Hundreds of thousands of student-loan debtors who do not qualify for student-loan relief under the bastardized Brunner standard will be eligible under the Rosenburg ruling.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Judge Morris's Rosenburg decision undercuts a central argument made by both the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and ECMC.  Both maintain that virtually all student debtors should be required to sign up for long-term, income-based repayment plans (IBRP) in lieu of getting bankruptcy relief.

Many courts have bought this specious (and I might say vicious) argument, which has led to absurd results. For example, in Butler v. ECMC, a bankruptcy judge refused to discharge Brenda Butler's student-loan debt in spite of the fact that the judge explicitly ruled that she had made good faith efforts to repay her student loans over a period of 20 years. Bankruptcy Judge Mary Gorman ruled that Ms. Butler should sign up for an IBRP, a plan that would end in 2037--42 years after Ms. Butler graduated from college!

Judge Morris pointed out that the Brunner test asks whether the debtor's financial circumstances are likely to improve over the "repayment period" of the loan, not whether the debtor can make token loan payments for 25 years. This simple change in the interpretation of the Brunner standard obliterates arguments made by DOE and ECMC that all distressed student debtors should sign up for repayment plans that last as long as a quarter-century.

So let's watch the Rosenberg litigation closely. If the Second Circuit puts its seal of approval of Judge Morris's ruling, the federal government will need to hire a lot more bankruptcy judges. And ECMC, which has made a nice living hounding student debtors in the bankruptcy courts, will have to look for another line of work.

References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-71585, Chapter 7, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).
Rosenberg v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Adv. No. 18-09023 (Bank. S.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2019).









Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Murrell v. Educational Education Management Corp.: An Ohio Bankruptcy Court Misinterprets "Undue Hardship"

Calvin Murrell was thrown out of work in 2000 due to knee and back injuries. Murrell then attended Stautzenberger College, a private, for-profit community college with a total enrollment of around 300 students. He obtained a degree in web tech at Stautzenberger and then attended Spring Arbor College and Owens Community College, but he failed to complete programs at these schools.

Murrell took out almost $73,000 in student loans to finance his college studies, and in 2018,  he tried to discharge this debt in bankruptcy. He maintained that being forced to repay this debt would create an "undue hardship."

Judge John Gustafson, an Ohio bankruptcy judge, applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether it would impose an undue hardship on Murrell if he were forced to repay his loans.

"Under the Brunner test," Judge Gustafson instructed, "the debtor must prove each of the following three elements: (1) that the debtor cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a 'minimal' standard of living for [himself] and [his] dependents if forced to repay the loans; (2) that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans; and (3) that the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loans."

To obtain a discharge of his student loans, Murrell was required to prove all three elements of the Brunner test. Educational Credit Management Corporation opposed the discharge, arguing that Murrell failed to pass any of the Brunner test's three elements. ECMC produced a witness who testified that Murrell was eligible to participate in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP) that would require him to pay between $63 and $94 a month.

Judge Gustafson observed that Murrell's family income was about $44,000, consisting of $32,893 earned by Murrell's wife and $13,068 in Murrell's Social Security Disability payments. Judge Gustafson concluded that with a little belt-tightening, Murrell and his wife could make monthly student-loan payments of $63 to $94 a month and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Therefore the judge refused to discharge Murrell's student loans in bankruptcy.

In my view, Judge Gustafson misapplied the Brunner test when he ruled that Murrell's student loans were nondischargeable. The Brunner test does not ask whether a debtor can maintain a minimal standard of living if required to make token loan payments under an income-based repayment plan.  Rather it asks whether the debtor can pay off the student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.

If Murrell signs up for an IBRP that requires him to pay $63 per month for 25 years, he will never pay off his student loans.  Quite the contrary; his student-loan debt will grow larger with each passing month.

Let us assume Murrell makes monthly payments of $63 under an IBRP. And let us further assume that his student-loan debt accrues interest at 5 percent. Interest at that rate on $73,000 amounts to $304 a month--almost five times the amount of his monthly payments.

Under an IBRP, Murrell's debt will negatively amortize as unpaid interest accumulates and becomes capitalized. Thus, the $73,000 dollars Murrell owes in 2019 will grow to a much larger number by the time 25years have passed.

The essence of Judge Gustafson's ruling is that no one is eligible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy because it is always possible to make token monthly payments under an IBRP. Indeed, debtors in IBRPs who are unemployed and have no income are not required to make any payments on their loans.

Currently, there are 8 million student-loan debtors enrolled in IBRPs.  Virtually none of these people are paying down the principal on their loans. When their repayment obligations come to an end--after 20 or 25 years--they will owe considerably more than they borrowed. This amassed debt will be forgiven, but the amount of the forgiven loans will be taxable to them as income.

This is insane. The only purpose of these income-based repayment plans is to hide the amount of student-loan debt that is not being paid off--hundreds of billion dollars.

References

Murrell v. Educational Management Corporation, 505 B.R. 464 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio 2019).




Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Shenk v. U.S. Department of Education: A bankruptcy judge denies student-loan discharge to 59-year-old army veteran

As John Lennon famously observed, "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans." Certainly, Mr. Shenk, a military veteran, had other plans for his life other than filing for bankruptcy at the age of 59 in an effort to discharge $110,000 in student loans.

Timothy Shenk served 13 years in the U.S. Army (infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division).  He then enlisted in the National Guard in order to obtain the 20 years of military service that would make him eligible for full retirement. That was a good plan.

Shenk also planned to become a teacher and he obtained a bachelor's degree from SUNY Cortland in 1999.  He then worked on a master's degree program in Adolescent Education, and he completed all the course work to obtain his degree.  That also was a good plan.

Unfortunately, Shenk had unpaid student loans, and SUNY Cortland refused to award him his diploma. In addition, the university had a five-year time frame to meet program requirements and that time period elapsed years ago.  Consequently, Mr. Shenk will never receive the degree he worked for, even though he met all program requirements.

Shenk married when he was a young man and he and his wife had four children. But the marriage ended in divorce, and he became liable for public assistance payments made to his ex-wife. By the time he filed for bankruptcy, he had paid off most of that obligation, which is commendable.

Bankruptcy Judge Margaret Cangilos-Ruiz expressed some sympathy for Mr. Shenk. She pointed out that his graduate studies were interrupted because the State of New York called him back for active military service after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. "The bitter irony is that when ordered by the Governor, [Shenk] assisted New York State at a time of dire need only later to have the State refuse to confer the degree that may have put him on a financial path to pay what he owed."

Nevertheless, Judge Cangilos-Ruiz denied Shenk's request for a student-loan discharge on the grounds that he did not meet the stringent standards of the three-part Brunner test.  He was unemployed at the time of the bankruptcy proceedings and he could not pay back his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus he met Brunner's first requirement.  But the judge believed Shenk's financial circumstances would likely improve. He was employable, the judge pointed out, and he would soon be eligible for a small military pension and Social Security benefits.  The judge also said that Shenk failed Brunner's good-faith test because he had made no payments on his student loans over a number of years.

I think Judge Cangilos-Ruiz erred when she refused to discharge Mr. Shenk's student loans. First of all, universities should not be allowed to withhold a diploma simply because the would-be graduate has unpaid student loans. Such a policy amounts to putting student borrowers in debtor's prison--they cannot pay back their debts because their credentials are being withheld.

Moreover, Judge Cangilos-Ruiz denied Mr. Shenk a discharge partly due to the fact that he would eventually receive Social Security benefits and a modest military pension. In my view, no one who is nearing retirement age should be required to devote one penny of meager retirement income to paying back student loans.

In short, the equities of this case favored Mr. Shenk. Perhaps he made some mistakes in planning his finances but he served his country for 20 years in the U.S. military and he worked to obtain a graduate degree that his university refused to give him.

In any event, Mr. Shenk will probably never be able to repay $110,000 in student-loan debt. His only recourse now is to sign up for a long-term income-based repayment plan that could stretch out for as long as 25 years--when he will be 85 years old!

Isn't it ironic that presidential candidates are calling for a college education to be free to everyone while a man who served his country for 20 years is burdened by enormous student-loan debt? Thanks for your service, Mr. Shenk.

References

Shenk v. U.S. Department of Education, 603 B.R. 671 (Bankr. N.D.N.Y. 2019).







Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A disbarred lawyer is unable to discharge $250,000 in student loans in bankruptcy. Will he ever pay back those loans?

Paul Hurley obtained a law degree in 2004 and a master's degree in tax law in 2006. He took out student loans to fund his studies, and he was never in default on those loans.

About three years after getting his master's degree, Hurley took a job as a revenue agent for the Internal Revenue Service, which required him to audit taxpayers' federal tax returns. According to court documents, Hurley solicited a $20,000 bribe from a taxpayer in 2015, and he was convicted of two felonies: Receiving a bribe by a public official and receiving a gratuity by a public official. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and he lost his license to practice law in the state of Washington (601 B.R. at 532).

While still incarcerated, Hurley filed for bankruptcy and sought to discharge $256,000 in student loans. He was 45 years old at the time and had a three-year-old son. Hurley argued that it would be an undue hardship for him to pay back his student loans, given the fact that he could no longer practice law.

A bankruptcy court in the state of Washington denied Hurley's petition to discharge his student loans. In the court's opinion, Hurley failed the three-part Brunner test for determining whether repayment of his loans would constitute an undue hardship. 

In particular, the court ruled that Hurley failed the good faith prong of the Brunner test. In the court's view, Hurley's criminal conduct was "very significant' and outweighed his earlier, good-faith efforts to repay his student loans.

“As a lawyer,” the bankruptcy judge reasoned, “[Hurley] had to know that, if he committed the crime that he did, he would lose his ability to practice law. As such [Hurley] suffers from both failure to maximize his income and having willfully or negligently caused his financial condition” (601 B.R. at 533, appellate court quoting the bankruptcy court).

Hurley appealed the bankruptcy court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which affirmed the lower court’s opinion. The BAP court emphasized that it was not endorsing a bright-line rule that a criminal conviction always nullifies good faith. Nevertheless, the appellate court agreed with the bankruptcy judge that Hurley’s “willful criminal behavior tipped the balance against good faith”(601 B.R. at 536).

In addition, the BAP court agreed with the lower court that Hurley failed to maximize his income, which is a requirement for obtaining a student-loan discharge. Hurley maintained that he could not maximize his income because he lost his law license, but the BAP court pointed out that he lost his license “because of his willful conduct.”

Paul Hurley is not the most sympathetic person to seek student-loan relief in a bankruptcy court.  The BAP court and the bankruptcy court are clearly correct in concluding that Hurley’s financial predicament is the result of his own misbehavior.

But what did the BAP court accomplish when it ruled against Mr. Hurley? Will Hurley ever pay back the quarter of a million dollars he owes in student loans? No—I don’t think he will.

Hurley’s only hope now is to apply for an income-based repayment plan that will set his monthly loan payments based on his income. Such a plan will terminate in 20 or 25 years—when Hurley will be in his sixties. It seems virtually certain that his loan balance will keep growing with each passing month because interest will continue to accrue on his debt even if he makes his regular monthly loan payments.

Senator Bernie Sanders proposes student-loan forgiveness for everybodyeven Mr. Hurley. That may be going a bit far.

But people who are insolvent and unable to repay their student loans should be able to discharge those loans in bankruptcy like any other unsecured debt--even people who've made mistakes.

After all, what is the point of saddling Mr. Hurley with crushing student-loan debt he will never repay?




References

Hurley v. United States, 601 B.R. 529 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2019).



Friday, August 2, 2019

Lone Star Blues: Vera Thomas is 60 years old and suffers from diabetic neuropathy, but she lost her bid to discharge student loans in bankruptcy

Vera Thomas is more than 60 years old and suffers from diabetic neuropathy, "a degenerative condition that causes pain in her lower extremities." Unemployed and suffering from a chronic illness, she filed for bankruptcy in 2017 in the hope that she could discharge her student loans in bankruptcy. 

 At the time of her bankruptcy proceedings, Thomas was living in dire poverty. Her monthly income was less than $200 a month and she was surviving on "a combination of public assistance and private charity." 

How much did Ms. Thomas owe on her student loans? She borrowed $7,000 back in 2012 and she used her loan money to attend community college for two semesters. Thomas didn't return for a third semester, and she only paid loan payments totally less than $85. 

Judge Harlin Hale, aTexas bankruptcy judge, applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether Thomas would suffer an "undue hardship" if forced to pay off her student loans. Part one required her to show that she could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Thomas clearly met this part of the test.

Brunner's second part required Thomas to establish that circumstances beyond her control made it unlikely that she would ever be able to repay her student loans. The U.S. Department of Education argued that Thomas could not meet this part of the Brunner test and Judge Hale agreed. In spite of her debilitating illness,  he concluded, Thomas could not show that she was "completely incapable of employment now or in the future." Surely there was some sedentary work she was capable of doing, Judge Hale reasoned.

In short, Judge Hale denied Thomas's request for bankruptcy relief from her student loans. He expressed sympathy for Ms. Thomas's situation, but he said that during his entire time on the bench, he had never granted student-loan bankruptcy relief over the objection of the lender (the U.S. Department of Education or its contracted debt collectors).

Thomas appealed to a U.S. District Court, which affirmed Judge Hale's decision; and then she appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Two public interest groups came to her aid by filing an amicus brief. The National Consumer Bankruptcy Rights Center and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys argued that the Brunner test was no longer an appropriate standard for determining whether a student-loan debtor is entitled to bankruptcy relief and should be overruled. 

But the Fifth Circuit refused to abandon the Brunner test or even to soften the way it is interpreted.  Unless the Supreme Court or an en banc panel of the Fifth Circuit overrules Brunner, the Fifth Circuit panel stated, it was bound by that decision.

The Fifth Circuit decision  implicitly acknowledged that the federal student-loan program poses an enormous public-policy problem, but in the court’s view, it was not the judiciary’s job to fix it: "[T]he fact that student loans are now mountainous in quantity poses systematic issues far beyond the capacity or authority of courts, which can only interpret the written law. . . Ultimate policy issues raised by Ms. Thomas and the amicus are for Congress, not the courts."


So what does the future hold for Vera Thomas? Her student-loan debt is undoubtedly far larger today than it was when she initially borrowed $7,000 to enroll at a community college back in 2012. Over the years, interest has accrued and perhaps penalties and fees. In the aftermath of the Fifth Circuit's decision, it seems likely that Vera Thomas’s only viable option is to sign up for an income-driven repayment plan, which will terminate when she is 85 years old. 



References

Thomas v. U.S. Department of Education, No 18-11091 (5th Cir. July 30, 2019).

Monday, July 1, 2019

Hill v. ECMC: An Army veteran with PTSD sheds her student loans in bankruptcy

Hill v. ECMC: A veteran seeks to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy

Risa Rozella Hill enrolled at Wichita State University after getting out of the Army, and she obtained a bachelor's degree in social work in 2002. She went on to pursue a master's degree from Newman College but did not graduate. In 2008, she received an MBA from DeVry University.

Hill financed her studies with 23 student loans totally $127,000. She never paid anything on these loans, but she was never in default because she obtained various deferments or forbearances that entitled her to skip her loan payments.

In 2013, Hill began to experience symptoms of psychosis, including delusions, hallucinations, and voices that "instructed her to behave in certain ways." In 2014, she was involuntarily committed to psychiatric care in a Georgia hospital. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hill was released from the hospital, but she was readmitted to another hospital a few months later after showing signs of psychosis. She was released again in November 2014.

Prior to filing for bankruptcy, Hill experienced periods of homelessness. The Social Security Administration deemed her disabled and she began receiving disability-benefit checks--her sole source of income. She also began living in publicly subsidized housing.

In 2017, Hill filed for bankruptcy and sought to have her student loans discharged. Hill was represented by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Educational Credit Management entered the litigation as the sole defendant.

Judge Sage Sigler discharges Hill's student loans over ECMC's objections

In evaluating Hill's claim, Judge Sage Sigler applied the three-pronged Brunner test to determine whether repaying the loans would constitute an "undue hardship" under 11 U.S.C. § 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. In Judge Sigler's opinion, Hill's disability income was hardly adequate to meet her basic needs.  Hill could not maintain a minimal lifestyle if she were forced to pay back her student loans, Judge Sigler concluded; and thus, Hill satisfied the first prong of the Brunner test.

Moreover, Judge Sigler continued, Hill's financial circumstances were unlikely to improve during the loan repayment period. "[T]he weight of the evidence demonstrates that [Hill's] condition will persist indefinitely," Judge Sigler observed; and any recovery from Hill's bipolar disorder was "purely speculative." Indeed, Judge Sigler wrote, "The prospect of [Hill] obtaining and maintaining employment commensurate with her prior jobs is unfortunately hopeless." In short, Hill met part two of the Brunner test.

Part Three of the Brunner test required Hill to show that she had handled her student loans in good faith.  Again, Judge Sigler ruled in Hill's favor. Hill met the good faith standard in spite of the fact she had not made a single loan payment.

Judge Sigler pointed out that Hill took the steps necessary to obtain deferments or forbearances, which the judge evidently viewed as a sign of good faith. Moreover, the judge noted, "Good faith effort only requires the debtor to have made payments when she was in a position to make such payments. [Hill] was never in such a position."

Implications

In some ways, the Hill decision is unremarkable. Hill's mental illness (psychosis and PTSD) clearly qualified her for a student-loan discharge. What is remarkable is the fact that ECMC opposed it. ECMC dragged out its shopworn tactic of demanding that Hill sign up for REPAYE, a long-term income-based repayment plan--a plan that would have required her to make monthly payments of zero dollars due to her low income.

But Judge Sigler did not buy that line. ECMC's calculation of Hill's loan payments under REPAYE demonstrated that Hill had no discretionary income to dedicate to student-loan repayment. "The very reason [Hill's] payment amount would be zero-dollars a month under REPAYE is because she cannot afford to make payments under her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living."

The Hill case is probably most significant as another case in which a bankruptcy judge refused to adopt ECMC's tiresome argument that all student-loan debtors should be placed in income-based repayment plans as an alternative to bankruptcy relief.  Judge Sigler identified the fundamental flaw in ECMC's argument, which is this: Debtors so destitute that they are required to make zero-dollar payments on their student loans clearly meet the first criterion for student-loan relief under Brunner. They cannot maintain a minimal lifestyle and pay off their student loans.


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).

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Alexandra Acosta-Coniff v. ECMC: A single mother wins bankruptcy relief from student loans but sees victory snatched away on appeal

In 2013, Alexandra Acosta-Conniff, an Alabama school teacher and single mother of two children, filed an adversary proceeding in an Alabama bankruptcy court, hoping to discharge student loans that had grown to $112,000.  She did not have an attorney, so she represented herself in court.

At her trial,  Judge William Sawyer applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether Acosta-Conniff met the "undue hardship" standard for having her student loans discharged in bankruptcy.

First, Judge Sawyer ruled, Conniff could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her two children. Thus she met the first part of the Brunner test.

Second, Conniff's economic circumstances were not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Conniff was a rural school teacher, Judge Sawyer pointed out, who could not expect a significant rise in income. Although she had obtained a doctorate in education, that doctorate had not paid off financially.

Third, Judge Sawyer ruled, Conniff had handled her student loans in good faith. She had made monthly payments over several years and she had obtained deferments from making payments--deferments she was eligible to receive. In Judge Sawyer's view, Conniff met the good-faith requirement of the Brunner test.

In short, Judge Sawyer determined, Conniff qualified for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard as interpreted by Brunner.  Accordingly, the judge discharged all of Conniff's student-loan debt.

ECMC appealed, and Judge Keith Watkins reversed. Fortunately, retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff volunteered to represent Conniff without charge, and Wedoff and his associates took her case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2017, four years after Conniff filed her adversary proceeding, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court,  directing Judge Watkins to review Judge Sawyer's ruling under the "clear error" standard. In other words, unless Judge Sawyer had committed clear error in deciding for Conniff, Judge Watkins was bound to uphold Sawyer's decision. The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case back to Judge Watkins to straighten things out.

In January 2018, Judge Watkins issued his second opinion in Conniff's case, and he concluded that Judge Sawyer had indeed committed clear error when he ruled in Conniff's favor. Judge Watkins' opinion is a bit convoluted, but basically he said Judge Sawyer made a mistake in failing to determine whether Conniff was eligible for an income-contingent repayment plan (ICRP).

In Judge Watkins' opinion, if Conniff can make even small loan payments under an ICRP and still maintain a minimal standard of living, she is not eligible for bankruptcy relief.

So what does this mean?

It means Alexandra Acosta-Conniff must return to bankruptcy court a second time--more than three years after her first trial. Apparently, Judge Sawyer will not schedule a second trial; instead, he has asked Conniff and ECMC to submit proposed findings of facts. At some point, Judge Sawyer will issue his second opinion on Conniff's case.

Conniff owed $112,000 in 2015, when she was 44 years old. Her debt has grown over the last three years due to accrued interest, and Conniff is older. She is now 47 years old.

What does the future hold for Alexandra Acosta-Conniff? More litigation.

If Conniff wins her second trial, ECMC, ruthless and well financed, will undoubtedly appeal again; and the case will ultimately go back to the Eleventh Circuit a second time. Conniff now has an able lawyer, so if she loses before Judge Sawyer, she will likely appeal. So--win or lose--Conniff is in for at least two more years of stressful litigation. When this is all over, Conniff will likely be 50 years old.

Here's my take on Conniff's sad odyssey through the federal courts. First, Judge Watkins' most recent decision is deeply flawed. In Watkins' view, a student-loan debtor who can make even small loan payments under an ICRP while maintaining a minimal standard of living cannot discharge her student loans in bankruptcy: period.

But if that were true, then no student-loan debtor is eligible for bankruptcy relief. In several cases, ECMC or the U.S. Department of Education has argued that a student-loan debtor  living at or below the poverty line should be denied bankruptcy relief  and required to enter into an ICRP even though the debtor would be required to pay zero. In fact, ECMC and DOE have been arguing for years that basically every destitute student-loan debtor should be put in an ICRP and denied bankruptcy relief.

Do want some examples? Roth v. ECMC (9th Cir. BAP 2013), Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. W.D. Wis. 2013), Abney v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015), Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. D. Mass. 2018).

The Roth case illustrates the insanity of this point of view. In that case, ECMC fought bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly retiree with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month in Social Security benefits. Put her in an ICRP, ECMC insisted, even though she would be required to pay nothing due to her impoverished circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel pointed out the absurdity of ECMC's position. It would be pointless to put Roth in an ICRP, the court ruled. "[T]he law does not require a party to engage in futile acts."

Forcing Alexandra Acosta-Conniff into an ICRP, which Judge Watkins obviously desires, is a futile act. She will never pay off her student loans, even if she makes small monthly income-based payments for the next 25 years.

Acosta-Conniff is a big, big case. If Judge Watkins' hardhearted view prevails, then bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors is foreclosed in the Eleventh Circuit. If the compassionate and common-sense spirit of Judge Sawyer's original 2013 opinion is ultimately upheld, then distressed student-loan debtors like Alexandra Costa-Conniff will get the fresh start that the bankruptcy courts were intended to provide.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will ultimately have to look at Alexandra Acosta-Conniff's case a second time.  But her next trip to the Eleventh Circuit is likely at least two years away.

The Honorable Judge Keith Watkins


References

Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC, 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 686 Fed. Appx. 647 (11th Cir. 2017).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 583 B.R. 275 (M.D. Ala. 2018).


Monday, June 25, 2018

Should courts look for bad faith when distressed student-loan debtors ask for bankruptcy relief? Further reflections on Smith v. Department of Education

Distressed debtors cannot discharge student loans unless they can show their loans constitute an "undue hardship" to themselves and their dependents. Congress did not define undue hardship in the Bankruptcy Code, so it was left to the courts to define the term.

Most courts have adopted the Brunner test for determining when a student loan is an undue hardship that can be discharged in bankruptcy. That test has three parts:

1) Can the debtor pay back the loan while maintaining a minimal standard of living?
2) Will the debtor's financial circumstances change during the lifetime of the loan?
3) Did the debtor handle his or her loans in good faith?

In Smith v. Department of Education, decided a few months ago, Judge Frank Bailey, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge, explicitly criticized the Brunner test's  "good faith" component:
[A]ny test that allows for the court to determine a student debtor's good or bad faith while living at a subsistence level, virtually strait-jacketed by circumstances, displaces the focus from where the statute would have it: the hardship. It also imposes on courts the virtually impossible task of evaluating good or bath faith in debtors whose range of options is exceedingly limited and includes no realistic hope of repaying their loans to any appreciable extent. . .(p. 566)
 Judge Bailey argued for a simpler and fairer standard for determining when a student loan can be discharged in bankruptcy: "If a debtor has suffered a personal, medical, or financial loss and cannot hope to pay now or in the reasonably reliable future," the judge reasoned, "that should be enough" (p. 565) (italics supplied).

Eliminating the good faith component of the Brunner test would have a huge impact on student-loan bankruptcy jurisprudence because the Department of Education and its thug debt collectors almost always argue that a debtor filed for bankruptcy in bad faith. And this is ironic because it is the Department of Education, not student-loan debtors, that repeatedly demonstrates bad faith in the bankruptcy courts.

Let's take the Smith case as an example:

1) First of all, the U.S. Department of Education has publicly proclaimed it will not oppose bankruptcy relief for student debtors who are disabled. Mr. Smith is disabled; and Smith and his mother subsist entirely on Smith's monthly disability check, food stamps, and his mother's tiny Social Security income. Thus, DOE was opposing Mr. Smith's plea for bankruptcy relief in direct contradiction to DOE's own policy. In my opinion, that shows DOE's bad faith.

2) In a 2015 letter, a Department of Education official said DOE would not oppose bankruptcy relief when it made no economic sense to do so. Smith's adversary proceeding stretched out over five days, taking up Judge Bailey's time; and both Smith and DOE had lawyers. (In fact, DOE had two lawyers.) Smith only borrowed $29,000; and the litigation expenses almost certainly exceeded that amount. In my view, DOE's decision to chase Smith into bankruptcy court is additional evidence of bad faith.

3) Finally, DOE insisted Smith should be put in a long-term income-based repayment plan, even though it admitted Smith's income was so low that his monthly loan payments would be zero. So what was the point of fighting Smith in bankruptcy court? Again, this is more evidence of DOE's bad faith.

In fact, the Department of Education and the student loan guaranty agencies (ECMC in particular) almost always argue that a distressed student-loan debtor filed for bankruptcy in bad faith. And this is true even when the debtor is hovering on the brink of homelessness.

After all, in the Myhre case, DOE opposed student-loan debt relief for a quadriplegic whose expenses exceeded his income.  In the Abney case, DOE fought Kevin Abney, who was so poor he did not own a car and traveled to work on a bicycle. And in the Stevenson case, ECMC objected when Janice Stevenson, a woman with a record of homelessness and who lived in subsidized housing, tried to discharge almost $100,00 in student loans.

So Judge Bailey is right. The federal courts should stop asking whether down-and-out student-loan debtors handled their student loans in good faith. The only important questions are these: Can the debtor pay back his or her student loans? Will the debtor ever be able to pay back those loans?

And if the courts continue to insist on looking for bad faith, they should look for it by the Department of Education, ECMC, and the entire gang of government-subsidized debt collectors.



References

Jillian Berman. Why Obama is forgiving the student loans of almost 400,000 peopleMarketwatch.com, April 13, 2016.


Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698 (Bakr. W.D. Wis. 2013).

Michael Stratford. Feds May Forgive Loans of Up to 387,000 BorrowersInside Higher Ed, April 13, 2016. 

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (In Re Smith), 582 B.R. 556 (Bankr. D. Mass 2018).

Stevenson v. ECMC, Case No. 08-14084-JNF, Adv. P. No. 08-1245 (Bankr. D. Mass. August 2, 2011).

Some physical or mental impairments can qualify you for a total r permanent disability discharge on your federal student loans and/or TEACH grant service obligation. U.S. Department of Education web site (undated).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Coplin v. U.S. Dep't of Education: Bankruptcy court orders single mother of 4 disabled children to repay $222,000 in student loans

Heather Coplin graduated from University of Pacific's McGeorge law school in 2009 and gave birth to triplets that same year. The infants were born prematurely and all three suffer from profound disabilities. At age 8, one triplet is incontinent and requires an electric wheelchair for mobility. The other two triplets have muscular issues that impair their mobility. Two triplets have required shunts to drain spinal fluid.

Coplin also has a 15-year-old child who suffers from autism. He is six feet tall, weighs 340 pounds and engages in "anxiety-induced acting-out behavior." Coplin has called the police on several occasions to deal with her son's aggressiveness.

Coplin herself is bipolar and has made several suicide attempts.

Although Coplin graduated law school in 2009, she was unable to pass the state bar exam until 2012. She practiced law for a time and even established her own firm. She found, however, that family issues prevented her from working as an attorney. At time of trial, Coplin was a night-shift waitress at the Muckleshoot Casino

Coplin filed an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court to discharge almost half a million dollars in student-loan debt, some of it accruing interest at the rate of 10 percent. Navient, one of her creditors, agreed to discharge part of the debt, but three creditors opposed a discharge: ECMC, the U.S. Department of Education and University of the Pacific.

In a decision entered a few days ago, Judge Mary Jo Heston granted Coplin a partial discharge. Utilizing the three-pronged  Brunner test, Judge Heston concluded Coplin only met two prongs.

First, Coplin met the first prong, which required her to show she could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.  She also met a second prong, requiring her to show she had handled her student loans in good faith.

Nevertheless, Judge Heston did not grant Coplin a full discharge. Coplin had about $1850 in discretionary monthly income, the judge pointed out.  She could put that amount toward paying off her student loans. Judge Heston ruled that Coplin could pay back $222,000 over a ten-year period; and thus she only granted Coplin a partial discharge.

It should be pointed out that the only reason Coplin had any discretionary income was that she was living in her fiancee's home rent free. In addition, I don't think the bankruptcy judge accurately estimated Coplin's ongoing medical expenses. Coplin said she visited doctors 6 or 7 times a week due to her children's medical issues.

These are my reflections on the Coplin decision:

First, I was struck by Coplin's strong work ethic. As Judge Heston noted, Coplin had worked continuously at a variety of jobs since graduating from law school. She practiced law, sold real estate, worked as a delivery driver, and finally wound up working the night shift as a casino waitress.  No one can say she didn't do her best to feed her family.

Second, I was shocked by the ruthlessness of Coplin's creditors. The creditors--including the U.S. Department of Education--argued Coplin should be denied a discharge because she had not lived frugally.  They pointed to the fact that she occasionally dined at fast food restaurants, had cable television, and had taken a modest vacation.

Is Betsy DeVos' Department of Education saying that a casino waitress with four disabled children is living extravagantly because she occasionally eats at McDonald's? Yes, it is.

Finally, I was astonished by the arrogance of University of the Pacific, where Coplin went to law school. One would think the university would be embarrassed by the fact that one of its law graduates racked up half a million dollars in student-loan debt (including accrued interest), took three years to pass the bar exam and was working as a waitress 8 years after obtaining her law degree. But no--UP wants its money--at 10 percent interest.

In sum, I found the Coplin decision disheartening. If a waitress with four disabled children can't obtain a complete discharge of her student loans in a bankruptcy court then it is difficult to see how any student-loan debtor is entitled to bankruptcy relief. God help us.

Muckleshoot Casino, where attorney Heather Coplin works as a waitress

References

Coplin v. U.S. Department of Education,  Case No. 13-46108, Adversary No. 16-04122, 2017 WL 6061580 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. December 6, 2017).

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A single mother of three children gets a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans: Price v. Betsy DeVos and U.S. Department of Education

Kristin Price, a single mother of three young children, won an important victory in a Pennsylvania bankruptcy court last month. On June 23, Judge Eric Frank issued an opinion discharging all of Ms. Price's federal student loans--approximately $26,000. This is another win for the good guys.

Price v. DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education: A single mom files for bankruptcy

At the time of trial, Ms. Price was 29 years old and had three children ages 3, 5 and 11. Although she was still married, she was separated from her husband and anticipated a divorce.

Price obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Radiology Science from Thomas Jefferson University in 2011, financing her studies with federal and private loans.  At the time of trial, she worked part-time as a vascular sonographer but was unable to find full-time work in her field. She testified she could obtain a second part-time job working outside her field but the additional child care costs did not justify that option.

Price received informal child support from her estranged husband, but her reasonable expenses still exceeded her income. She testified that she lived with her mother in return for paying her mother's mortgage payment--about $1400 a month.

At the time Price filed her adversary complaint in the bankruptcy court, she owed nearly $26,000 in federal loans and $30,000 to Chase Bank.  Price settled with Chase prior to trial. Thus the only issue before Judge Frank was whether Price was entitled to have her federal loans discharged.

Judge Frank applied the three-part Brunner test to rule for Ms. Price

Judge Frank applied the three-part Brunner test to decide Price's case. The Department of Education conceded that Price passed the first prong of the Brunner test; she could not pay back her federal loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.

The Department also conceded that Price passed Brunner's third prong. It acknowledged that she had handled her student loans in good faith.

But DOE argued that Price could not pass Brunner's second prong. According to DOE, Price could not show additional circumstances making it likely that her financial situation would not improve "for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans." Basically, DOE maintained that Price was young and healthy and was qualified for a good job in the medical field. Eventually, DOE pointed out, Price's children would grow up and leave the home, which would enable Price to get a better job and repay her student loans.

And here is where Judge Frank's opinion gets interesting. Price argued that her future financial prospects should be considered for no longer than the remaining period of her 10-year loan repayment obligation, which ended in 2024. DOE argued that Judge Frank should consider Price's financial prospects for a much longer time--the 20- or 25-year period of an income-based repayment plan.

Fortunately for Price, Judge Frank did not buy DOE's argument. The judge ruled that Price had rejected a long-term income-based repayment plan in good faith; and thus he would consider her financial prospects based on the terms of her ten-year repayment obligation and not the 20 or 25 years DOE requested.

Judge Frank said he was obligated to consider Price's future financial prospects based on "specific articulable facts, not unfounded optimism." If he were required to consider Price's financial situation over a 20- or 25-year term, Judge Frank reasoned, his determination "[would] be nothing more than mere guesswork, without any reasonable degree of certitude."

Moreover, Judge Frank pointed out, DOE's own expert testified that DOE's 20-year REPAYE program was ill-suited for Price and that he would not recommend it for her. Judge Price also noted that a REPAYE plan would require Price to consolidate her debt, which would cause accrued interest to be capitalized into a larger loan balance--meaning she would be "paying interest on interest."

If Price's meager income did not improve significantly in later years, Judge Frank explained, her loan would eventually "reach a kind of 'escape velocity,'" meaning that her monthly payments would not be enough to cover accruing interest and her loan balance would grow "for the next several decades."

Based on this analysis, Judge Frank then considered what Price's financial prospects would likely be over the next five years--about 70 percent of the remaining repayment period. The judge concluded Price would probably be unable to pay back her loans over that period.

In short, after applying the second prong of the Brunner test to Price's financial outlook, the judge discharged all of Price's federal loans.

Without question, the heart of Judge Price's ruling was based on his conclusion that Price had rejected a long-term payment period in good faith. And of course, his decision was made a lot easier due to the fact that DOE's own expert admitted that a long-term repayment plan was not appropriate for her.

What does the Price decision mean for other overburdened student-loan debtors?

 Judge Frank's Price decision is significant for at least three reasons:

 First, this is the most recent in a string of bankruptcy court decisions that have discharged student-loan debt owed by single mothers with dependent children. Price follows in the wake of Lamento, Acosta-Conniff (on appeal), Fern, and McDowell--all decisions involving single mothers with children who won discharges or partial discharges of their student loans.

Second, this is the latest in a series of very well-reasoned bankruptcy court decisions in which bankruptcy judges have worked hard to grant relief to overburdened debtors within the harsh constraints of the Brunner test. Judge Frank's decision was 25 pages long; Judge Berger's decision in the Johnson case out of Kansas was extensively researched. The Abney decision, the Fern decision, and several more have displayed remarkable intellectual agility and commendable commitment to the bankruptcy courts' core purpose, which is to grant overburdened debtors a fresh start in life.

Third, Judge Frank ruled that when a court applies the second prong of the Brunner test to determine whether  a debtor's financial prospects will improve in the future, the appropriate time period for consideration is the original term of the loan (generally 10 years) rather than the extended term of a hypothetical 20-year or 25-year income-based repayment plan.

Admittedly, Judge Frank's conclusion on this last point is a little fuzzy. Price had refused to sign up for a long-term, income-based repayment plan, and Judge Frank ruled that Price's decision to reject such a plan had been made in good faith. Judge Frank might have ruled differently if Price had signed up for a 20-year REPAYE plan before filing for bankruptcy.

Indeed, the judge wrote that the "outcome may well be different in other cases in which the extended loan repayment programs present a more attractive option, or for other appropriate reasons." And the judge also noted that DOE did not dispute the fact that Price's decision to reject a long-term repayment plan had been made in good faith.

In the final analysis, all we can say for sure about the Price decision is this: A healthy 29-year old mother of three children with good future job prospects won a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans based primarily on the fact that her judge did not think Price would be in a position to repay her loans over the next five years.

Personally, I would have liked the Price decision better if Judge Frank had said that a student-loan debtor's financial prospects should always be limited to the term of the original student loan--generally no more than 10 years. That's not what the judge ruled. Nevertheless, it is a good decision for student-loan debtors.

References



Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation], 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015), reversed550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016), reversed and remanded, No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017).
Richard Fossey & Robert C. Cloud. Tidings of Comfort and Joy: In an Astonishingly Compassionate Decision, a a Bankruptcy Judge Discharge the Student Loans of an Alabama School Teacher Who Acted as Her Own Attorney. Teachers College Record, July 20, 2015. ID Number: 18040.

In re Lamento, 520 B.R. 667 (Bkrtcy. N.D. Ohio 2014).

Price v. U.S. Department of Education, ky. No. 15-17645 ELF, Adv. No. 16-0011, 2017 Bankr. LEXIS 1748 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 2017).


McDowell v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 549 B.R. 744, 774 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2016).






Thursday, May 11, 2017

ECMC n v. Acosta-Conniff: Just because you made some bad decisions doesn't disqualify you from discharging your student loans in bankruptcy

Alexandra Acosta-Conniff (Conniff), a single mother of two and an Alabama school teacher, took out student loans to further her education; and she eventually obtained a Ph.D. degree from Auburn University.  She made some payments on her loans, but she put them in deferment for several years due to her low income and her family situation.

Interest accrued on the loans while they were in deferment, and by the time Conniff filed for bankruptcy, her loan balance had grown to $112,000.  In 2013, Conniff filed an adversary action against Educational Credit Management Corporation, seeking to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy.

At the trial on her adversary complaint, Conniff (who argued her case without a lawyer), presented evidence that her expenses slightly exceeded her income and that she was only able to make ends meet by getting financial aid from her parents.
ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief, arguing Conniff should be put into an income-driven repayment plan. ECMC also maintained that Conniff had discretionary income she could devote to making loan payments because she made voluntary payments of $220 a month to her retirement plan.

Judge William Sawyer, an Alabama bankruptcy judge, applied the three-part Brunner test to Conniff's circumstances and concluded that she passed all three parts. First, she was unable to pay off her loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her children. Second, additional circumstances existed showing that it was unlikely that her financial circumstances would improve during the loan-repayment period. Finally, Judge Sawyer was convinced that Conniff had handled her student loans in good faith.

In deciding Conniff's case, Sawyer, wrote that he was familiar with teachers' pay levels in Alabama, and he considered it unlikely that Conniff's pay as a teacher would increase significantly in the years to come. The judge estimated that Conniff's working life would extend no more than 15 years and that she would be unable to repay her student loans in that time period. Thus, Judge Sawyer discharged Conniff's loans in their entirety.

ECMC appealed to a U.S. District Court, arguing that Judge Sawyer had misapplied the Brunner test. Judge W. Keith Watkins, who heard the appeal, sided with ECMC and specifically found that Conniff failed Brunner's second prong because she had not demonstrated additional circumstances showing that it was unlikely she could repay her student loans in the future.

Essentially, Judge Watkins expressed disapproval of Conniff's decision to obtain a Ph.D. "[Judge Watkins] opined that Conniff has only herself to blame for incurring student debt in the pursuit of multiple degrees that she should have known would not lead to an increase in income sufficient to cover the debt."

Adopting a censorious tone, Judge Watkins said this:
Although [Conniff] is not satisfied with the pay the advanced degrees ultimately have yielded, Conniff chose to earn four degrees, funded primarily by student loans, in her preferred career path of education with a general understanding of the benefits she wold obtain from the degrees versus the costs. She admits specifically that she decided to obtain another student loan to earn her pinnacle Ph.D. in special education and agreed to repay it, knowing how the cost of the Ph.D. compared with the increase in pay it would provide. Conniff finds herself in circumstance largely of her own informed decision-making, which although not dispositive is a consideration.
Conniff, who by now had obtained excellent legal counsel in the person of retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff, appealed the district court's decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. There, she was more fortunate.  The Eleventh Circuit panel reversed Judge Watkin's opinion and remanded Conniff's case for further consideration.

The Eleventh Circuit specifically disapproved of Judge Watkin's conclusion that Conniff failed the second prong of the Brunner test because she "ha[d] only herself to blame" for her student-loan predicament. In the Eleventh Circuit panel's view, this was the wrong way to interpret Brunner's second prong. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit instructed:

[T]he second prong [of Brunner] is a forward-looking test that focuses on whether a debtor has shown her inability to repay the loan during a significant portion of the repayment period. It does not look backward to assess blame for the student debtor's financial circumstances. Thus, even if the court concludes that a debtor has acted recklessly or foolishly in accumulating her student debt, that does not play into an analysis under the second prong. Nor should it be considered on remand in analysis of that prong. [emphasis supplied] 
The Eleventh Circuit decision (which was not published) is not an outright win for Conniff. She must return to the district court to enable Judge Watkins to reconsider her situation under the Brunner test in accordance with the Eleventh Circuit's directive. But it is a good decision overall, not only for Conniff, but for many other student-loan debtors in bankruptcy.

Let's face it. Millions of distressed student debtors are indebted up to their eyeballs by student loans at least partly because they made some questionable decisions. Perhaps they obtained their degrees from expensive for-profit colleges instead of enrolling in a more reasonably priced public institution. Maybe they chose professions that will not lead to high-paying jobs. Perhaps they changed majors midway through their studies and incurred additional costs.

But the Eleventh Circuit of Appeals has ruled that judges should not examine a debtor's past when determining future ability to repay student loans. The second prong of the Brunner test "is a forward-looking test" and "does not look backward to assess blame." 

Thus, although the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC did not rule decisively in favor of cancelling Conniff's debt, she can take comfort from the fact that the lower court will consider her circumstances without blaming her for going to graduate school.




 References

Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation], 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015), reversed, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016), reversed and remanded, No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017).

ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Acosta Conniff], No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017) (unpublished opinion).

ECMC [Educational Credit Management Corporation] v. Acosta-Conniff, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016), reversed and remanded, No. 16-12884, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6746 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017).

Richard Fossey & Robert C. Cloud. Tidings of Comfort and Joy: In an Astonishingly Compassionate Decision, a a Bankruptcy Judge Discharge the Student Loans of an Alabama School Teacher Who Acted as Her Own Attorney. Teachers College Record, July 20, 2015. ID Number: 18040.

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