Showing posts with label IBRP. Show all posts
Showing posts with label IBRP. Show all posts

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Martin v. ECMC: Iowa bankruptcy judge discharges unemployed lawyer's student loans

In Martin v.  Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), decided last February, Janeese Martin obtained a bankruptcy discharge of her student-loan debt totally $230,000. Judge Thad Collin’s decision in the case is probably most significant for the rationale he articulated when he rejected ECMC’s argument that Martin should be placed in a 20- or 25-year, income-based repayment plan (IBRP) rather than given a discharge.

Citing previous decisions, Judge Collins said an IBRP is inappropriate for a 50-year-old debtor who would be 70 or 75 years old when her IBRP would come to an end. An IBRP would injure Martin’s credit rating and cause her mental and emotional hardship, the judge wrote. In addition, an IBRP could lead to a massive tax bill when Martin's plan terminated in 20 or 25 years, when she would be "in the midst" of retirement.

Janeese Martin, a 1991 law-school graduate, is unable to find a good law job

Janeese Martin graduated from University of South Dakota School of Law in 1991 and passed the South Dakota bar exam the following year. In spite of the fact that she held a law degree and a master's degree in public administration, Martin never found a good job in the field of law. 

Martin financed her undergraduate studies and two advanced degrees with student loans totally $48,817. In 1993, she consolidated her loans at an interest rate of 9 percent; and she made regular payments on those loans from 1994-1996. 

Over the years, there were times when Martin could make no payments on her student loans, but she obtained various kinds of deferments that allowed her to skip monthly payments while interest accrued on her loan balance. By 2016, when Martin and her husband filed for bankruptcy, her student-loan debt had grown to $230,000--more than four times what she borrowed.

As Judge Collins noted in his 2018 opinion, Janeese Martin was 50 years old and unemployed. Her husband Stephen was 66 years old and employed as a maintenance man and dishwasher at a local cafe. The couple supported two adult children who were studying at the University of South Dakota and had student loans of their own. The family's annual income for 2016 was $39,243, which came from three sources: Stephen's cafe job, his pension and his Social Security income.

Judge Collins reviewed Janeese's petition to discharge her student loans under the "totality of circumstances" test, which is the standard used by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for determining when student loans constitute an "undue hardship" and can be discharged through bankruptcy. 

Martin's Past, Present, and Reasonably Reliable Future Financial Resources

Judge Collins surveyed Martin's employment history since she completed law school. In addition to three years working for a legal aid clinic, Martin had worked eight years with the Taxpayer's Research Council, a nonprofit agency located in Iowa.  Her maximum salary in that job had paid only $31,000, and Martin was forced to give up her job in 2008 when her family moved to South Dakota.

ECMC, which intervened in Martin's suit as a creditor, argued that Martin had only made "half-hearted" efforts to find employment, but Judge Collins disagreed. Martin "testified very credibly that she wants to work and has applied for hundreds of jobs," Judge Collins wrote. Nevertheless, in the nine years since her last job, Martin had only received a few interviews and no job offers. 

Judge Collins acknowledged that Martin had two advanced degrees, but neither had been acquired recently. In spite of her diligent efforts to find employment, the judge wrote, she was unlikely to find a job in the legal field that would give her sufficient income to make significant payments on her student loan.

Martin's Reasonable and Necessary Living Expenses

Judge Collins itemized the Martin family's monthly expenses, which totaled about $3,500 a month. These expenses were reasonable, the judge concluded, and slightly exceeded the family's monthly income. Virtually all expenses "go toward food, shelter, clothing, medical treatment, and other expenses reasonably necessary to maintain a minimal standard of living," Judge Collins ruled, and "weigh in favor of discharge" (p. 893).

Other Relevant Facts and Circumstances

ECMC argued, as it nearly always does in student-loan bankruptcy cases, that Martin should be placed in a 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plan rather than given a bankruptcy discharge. The Martin family's income was so low, ECMC pointed out, that Martin's monthly payments would be zero. 

Judge Collins' rejected ECMC's arguments, citing two recent federal court opinions: the 2015 Abney decision, and Judge Collins' own 2016 decision in Fern v. FedLoan Servicing. “When considering income-based repayment plans under § 523(a)(8),” Judge Collins wrote, “the Court must be mindful of both the likelihood of a debtor making significant payment under the income-based repayment plan, and also of the additional hardships which may be imposed by these programs” (p. 894, internal punctuation omitted).

These hardships, Judge Collins noted, include the effect on the debtor’s ability to obtain credit in the future, the mental and emotional impact of allowing the size of the debt to grow under an IBRP, and “the likely tax consequences to the debtor when the debt is ultimately canceled” (p. 894, internal citation and punctuation omitted).

In Judge Collins’ view, an IBRP was simply inappropriate for Janeese Martin, who was 50 years old:
If she were to sign up for an IBRP, she would be 70 or 75 when her debt was ultimately canceled. The tax liability could wipe out all of [Martin’s] assets not as she is approaching retirement, but as she is in the midst of it. If [Martin] enters an IBRP, not only would she have the stress of her debt continuing to grow, but she would have to live with the knowledge that any assets she manages to save could very well be wiped out when she is in her 70s. (p. 894)
Conclusion

Martin v. ECMC is at least the fourth federal court opinion which has considered the emotional and mental stress that IBRPs inflict on student-loan debtors who are forced into long-term repayment plans that cause their total indebtedness to grow. Together, Judge Collins' Martin decision, Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, and Halverson v. U.S. Department of Education irrefutably argue that the harm IBRPs inflict on distressed student debtors outweighs any benefit the federal government might receive by forcing Americans to pay on student loans for 20 or even 25 years--loans that almost certainly will never be paid off.



References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 553 B.R. 362 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2016), aff'd, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2017).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2017).

Halverson v. U.S. Department of Education, 401 B.R. 378 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2009).

Martin v. Great Lakes Higher Education Group and Educational Credit Management Corporation (In re Martin), 584 B.R. 886 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2018).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quantitative Easing and the Student-Loan Crisis: The Government Loans Money to Students Who Don't Have a Prayer of Paying It Back

Investipedia defines quantitative easing as the process of increasing the money supply "by flooding financial institutions with capital in an effort to promote increased lending and liquidity."  Or more simply--quantitative easing is printing new money.

The Obama administration has done a lot of quantitative easing. At the height of its QE program, the government was pumping a trillion bucks a year into the economy. But there is another type of quantitative easing that is less well known. The government has been loaning billions of dollars to students under the federal student loan program, and it is only getting about half that money back. 

Who benefits? The higher education industry has gotten this money, including the stock holders and equity funds that own private colleges and universities.  

Conner v. U.S. Department of Education, a recent federal court decision, illustrates how QE works in the education sector. Patricia Conner, a Michigan school teacher, took out 26 separate student loans over a period of 14 years to pursue graduate education in three fields: education, business administration, and communications. By the time she filed for bankruptcy at age 61, she had accumulated over $214,000 in student-loan debt. According to the bankruptcy court, Conner did not make a single voluntary payment on any of her loans.

In the bankruptcy court, Conner argued that her debt should be discharged under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard, citing her advanced age as a factor that should weigh in her favor. 

But a Michigan bankruptcy court refused to release Conner from her debt, and a federal district court upheld the bankruptcy court's opinion on appeal. The district court  ruled that Conner's age could not be a consideration since she borrowed the money in midlife knowing she would have to pay it back. The court also indicated that Conner should enroll in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP) that the government had offered her, which would obligate her to pay only $267 a month on her massive debt. The court did not say how long she would be obligated to make payments under an IBRP, but these plans generally stretch out for at least 20 years.

Let's assume Conner signs up for an income-based repayment plan and begins paying $267 a month on her $214,000 debt. Let's also assume, that the interest rate on this debt is 6 percent. At 6 percent,  interest on $214,000 amounts to more than $12,000 a year, but Conner will only be paying about $3,200 a year toward paying off her student loans.

This means Conner's debt will be negatively amortizing--getting larger every year instead of smaller. After making payments for one year under her IBRP, Conner will owe $223,000. After the second year, she will owe around $233,000. After three years, Conner's debt will have grown to about a quarter of a million dollars, even if she faithfully makes every monthly loan payment.

Obviously, by the time Conner's IBRP comes to a conclusion in 20 or 25 years, she will owe substantially more than she borrowed, and she will be over 80 years old. In short, the government will never get back the money it loaned to Ms. Conner.

Who benefited from this arrangement? Wayne State University, where Conner took all her graduate-level classes, got most of Conner's loan money, which it used to pay its instructors and administrators.  But what did Wayne State provide Conner for all this cash? Apparently not much because Conner is still a school teacher, which is what she would have been even if she hadn't borrowed all that money to go to graduate school.

In my view, the Conner story is an illustration of QE in the higher education sector. The federal government is pumping billions of dollars a year into the corrupt and mismanaged higher education industry, and it is getting only about half of it back. Moreover, in far too many cases, the students who are borrowing all this money aren't getting much in value.

How long can this go on?  I don't know, but it can't go on forever.

Image result for "quantitative easing"


Note: I am indebted to my friend Richard Precht for pointing out the relevancy of Quantitative Easing to the student loan crisis.

References

Conner v. U.S. States Department of Education, Case No. 15-1-541, 2016 WL 1178264 (E.D. Mich. March 28, 2016).

Monday, August 29, 2016

20-year Income-Based Repayment Plans for Student-Loan Debtors: A Return to Feudalism

Paul Craig Roberts wrote a chilling essay a couple of months ago in which he argued that Greece is being looted by its corporate creditors. According to Roberts, the banks don't want Greece to pay off its debts because the banks ultimately intend to strip Greece of its national assets, including its ports and nationally protected islands.

Here is the core of Roberts' argument:
The banks don't want Greece to be able to service its debt, because the banks intend to use Greece's inability to service the debt in order to loot Greece of its assets and resources and in order to roll back the social safety net put in place during the 20th century. Neoliberalism intends to reestablish feudalism . . . . The way Germany sees it, the [International Monetary Fund] is supposed to lend Greece the money with which to repay the private German banks. Then the IMF is to be repaid by forcing Greece to reduce or abolish old age pensions, reduce public services and employment, and use the revenues saved to repay the IMF. As these amounts will be insufficient, additional austerity measures are imposed that require Greece to sell its national assets, such as public water companies and ports and protected Greek islands to foreign investors, principally the banks themselves or their major clients. (emphasis supplied)

In essence, Roberts is predicting that Greece will eventually cease to be a sovereign nation; it will become a feudal serfdom controlled by private investors--principally German banks.

Something similar is occurring in American higher education. Private investors are operating for-profit colleges for the purpose of looting American taxpayers, who provide the federal student loan money that naive students use to pay the colleges' outlandish tuition prices. Almost half the students who take out student loans to attend for-profit colleges default within five years, but the for-profit colleges doesn't care. They got their money upfront.

How does this equate to feudalism? The Obama administration knows that student-loan default rates are shockingly high, but it is covering up this problem by forcing students into long-term income-based repayment plans--plans that require former students to pay a percentage of their income to the government for 20, 25, or even 30 years. In a very real sense, these long-term debtors have become feudal serfs, indebted for almost their entire working lives for the privilege of attending a shitty for-profit college. (Perhaps I should have used a different word than shitty--just can't think of one right now.)

And it's not just the for-profit college owners who benefit from this scam. The public colleges and the not-for-profit private colleges are collecting their share of the loot--jacking up tuition prices, knowing that students will simply borrow more and more money to pay their escalating tuition bills.

In fact, college presidents have become the 21st century equivalents of feudal lords--living in palatial presidential homes, flying around the world in private jets to hob nob with donors, and collecting unseemly salaries, while low-paid adjuncts teach the classes much like the serfs of the middle ages.

So, student-loan debtors, you aren't the only ones being raped by the transnational financial oligarchs. The Greek people are your companions in misery.



References

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default ratesWashington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

Paul Craig Robert. We Have Entered the Looting Stage of Capitalism. Infowars, May 27, 2016. Accessible at http://www.infowars.com/we-have-entered-the-looting-stage-of-capitalism/

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hillary Clinton proposes a three-month moratorium on student-loan payments and massive loan refinancing: A good idea, but difficult to implement

According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has proposed a three-month moratorium on student-loan payments to allow borrowers time to restructure their student loans at lower interest rates.

Let me say flat out that this is a good idea. As the press has widely reported, about 40 percent of college-loan borrowers who are in the repayment phase of their loans aren't making payments. These people are seeing their loan balances go up as interest accrues on unpaid debt, and they desperately need repayment options they can afford.

In addition, millions of people who are making their loan payments would benefit from repayment plans that would lower monthly payments and take advantage of lower interest rates.

Hillary's proposal underscores this stark fact: The federal student-loan program is in chaos. There are currently eight income-based repayment plans, and even experts are confused about how the different options work and which students are eligible for the various repayment plans. Giving students a three-month hiatus to sort all this out is an excellent idea.

But why is Hillary making this proposal now? Was she prompted by pure politics--making a play for young people's votes? Is her proposal an attempt to win over Bernie Sanders' supporters?

Obviously, Hillary's proposal was driven by political consideration. But I think there is something more going on--namely panic. I think Hillary and the Democratic establishment finally realize that millions of Americans are overwhelmed by unmanageable student-loan debt. These distressed debtors are frustrated, demoralized and angry; and they won't vote for Hillary unless they think she will provide them with tangible relief if she is elected President.

In short, the Democrats see blood in the water; they know they must do something substantive to keep young voters in the Democratic column in the November election.   And even Hillary's fiercest critics must admit that her massive student-loan refinancing proposal is substantive and significant.

Nevertheless, I don't see how Hillary's plan can be effectively implemented. The federal student loan program is like a massive battleship plunging across a raging ocean at full speed--it can't be turned around quickly.  Here are some of the problems:

First, simply determining who is eligible for Hillary's refinancing program will be a huge challenge. More than 40 million Americans have outstanding student loans, and most of them are in the repayment phase.  Just figuring out who is eligible to stop making loan payments and who is not will be an enormous headache.

For example, a lot of borrowers took out private student loans that aren't part of the federal student loan program.  Of course, private loans won't be covered by Hillary's moratorium. But research has shown that many borrowers don't know whether their loans are federal or private, and some have both kinds of loans. If Hillary implements a moratorium, a good many borrowers will stop making payments on their private loans, which will get them in trouble with their lenders.

And 5 million borrowers are already in income-based repayment plans under very favorable terms. Can these people stop making payments for three months? If not, who is going to notify them that they are not eligible to participate in the moratorium?

Second, the Department of Education may not have the capacity to meet the bureaucratic challenge of refinancing millions of loans over a three-month period. There are 43 million people with outstanding student loans, but many borrowers signed multiple promissory notes--perhaps a dozen or more. And some of these documents date back 20, 25, and even 30 years.  

Refinancing all these loans will be a gigantic undertaking, the bureaucratic equivalent of launching Obamacare. I seriously doubt whether DOE or the various creditors have the resources to refinance all these loans over a three-month period. After all, DOE has had great difficulty coping with Corinthian Colleges' former students who sought loan forgiveness in the wake of Corinthian's bankruptcy. 

Third, once college borrowers are given license to stop making payments for a brief period, it will be very difficult to get them back in the repayment mode. In some ways, Hillary's proposal is like the European Union's decision to accept refugees from the Middle East. Once the stream of migrants began moving, the Europeans found themselves unable to handle the volume of refugees that crossed into the EU. And there was no effective way to regulate the flow.

Likewise, Hillary's proposal to allow millions of college borrowers to stop making loan payments while they refinance their student loans will create a massive upheaval in the federal student loan program. If her plan goes forward, I think we will see millions of people stop making loan payments, whether or not they are eligible for Hillary's moratorium. 

Finally, Hillary's student-loan refinancing plan may be nothing more than a way to shove borrowers into 20- and 25-year repayment plans.  The Obama administration has been aggressively pushing college borrowers into long-term income-based repayment plans. It has said it hopes to have nearly 7 million people in IBRPs by the end of 2017.

Hillary's pan will accelerate the movement of student borrowers into long-term repayment plans.  If it is implemented, we will surely see 10 million people or more in IBRPs, which will effectively make them indentured servants to Uncle Sam, paying a percentage of their income to the government for a majority of their working lives just for the privilege of going to college.

As I have said repeatedly, IBRPs are a bad idea and nothing more than a way to keep a lid on the student-loan crisis. It would be very disappointing if Hillary implemented a student-loan refinancing plan that has the primary effect of lengthening the loan repayment period for millions of Americans.

Conclusion: In spite of its drawbacks, Hillary's loan refinancing proposal is a good idea. In spite of all the drawbacks to Hillary's refinancing idea, I hope she goes forward with it if she becomes President. Almost anything is better than the present state of affairs.  Lowering interest rates will give millions of borrowers some relief from their debt. And even if her plan forces more borrowers into IBRPs, that option is better than having them continue to shoulder monthly payments that are so large as to be unmanageable.

Besides, Hillary's scheme, if implemented, will expose the utter chaos of the federal student loan program, which the federal government has hidden from the American people. Once the public realizes how many millions of people are suffering from their participation in the federal student loan program, maybe we will see real reform--which is nothing more and nothing less than reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts. 

References

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loans. Washington Post, July 5, 2016. Accessible at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/07/05/clinton-to-propose-3-month-hiatus-for-repayment-of-student-loans/?hpid=hp_special-topic-chain_clinton-loans-11pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Josh Mitchell. More than 40% of Student Borrowers Aren't Making Payments. Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016. Accessible at http://www.wsj.com/articles/more-than-40-of-student-borrowers-arent-making-payments-1459971348

Alia Wong. When Loan Forgiveness Isn't Enough. Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 2015. Accessible at http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/government-corinthian-college-loan-plan-problems/395513/

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Brenda Butler,"poster child" for the student-loan crisis, will be done with her student loans in 2037--42 years after she graduated from college

    You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
    Another day older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
    I owe my soul to the company store
Tennessee Ernie Ford

If the student-loan crisis had a poster child, it might well be Brenda Butler, who lost her bankruptcy case last week in Illinois. Butler borrowed about $14,000 to get a degree in English and creative writing from Chapman University, which she received in 1995. Over the next 20 years, she made loan payments totally $15,000--more than the amount she borrowed.

Unfortunately, she was unable to make payments from time to time, and her debt grew due to accrued interest and penalties. When she filed for bankruptcy in 2014, Butler's debt had grown to almost $33,000, more than twice what she borrowed!

Did Butler get rich in the 21 years that passed since she graduated from college? No, she didn't. When she filed for bankruptcy she owned no real property and drove a 2001 Saturn that had logged 147,000 miles. According to the bankruptcy court, Butler never made more than about $35,000 a year, and her monthly income at the time of her bankruptcy filing was only $1,879, about $300 less than her expenses.

In spite of her bleak financial situation and an employment history of relatively low wages, a bankruptcy judge refused to discharge Ms. Butler's student loans. In fact, in applying the three-prong Brunner test, the court ruled that she failed to meet two of the prongs.

First, the court concluded that Butler was able to maintain a minimum standard of living, in spite of the fact that she was living on unemployment benefits at the time of her hearing and these benefits were about to run out. Indeed, the court admitted that Butler "had virtually no resources to support herself."

Nevertheless, in the court's view, Butler would likely find employment soon, which would enable her to maintain a minimum standard of living and make payments under an income-base repayment plan. Thus, Butler failed the first prong of the Brunner test.

Brunner's second prong required Butler to show that additional circumstances existed that prevented her from paying on her student loans in the future. Here again, the judge ruled against her. The judge found Butler to be "capable and intelligent with no health problems or other impediments to being gainfully employed." The court acknowledged that Butler had "an unfortunate employment history through no apparent fault of her own," but she could show no exceptional circumstances that would indicate that she could not pay back her student loans in the coming years.

Interestingly, the judge ruled in Butler's favor regarding one prong of the Brunner test. In the judge's view, Butler had met her burden of showing she had made good faith efforts to pay back her loans. As the judge acknowledged, Butler had made payments totally more than the original principal on her loans, and she had made diligent efforts to improve her financial status. "This is not a case of a recent graduate trying to escape student loan debts before beginning a lucrative career," the judge admitted. On the contrary, Butler had made "substantial, though futile, efforts to pay down her student loan debt."

So why did Butler lose her case? This is the bankruptcy judge's summary:
[Butler's] financial situation is unfortunate, but more than that is required for a finding of undue hardship under the demanding Brunner test. [Butler] has shown good faith in her efforts to remain employed and pay down her student loan debt. But as a healthy, intelligent, relatively young worker with a proven ability to secure productive employment, [she] is unable to prove that her student loan obligations prevent her from maintaining a minimum standard of living, now or in the foreseeable future. Thus. . ., [Butler's] student loan debt will not be discharged.
The Butler decision is particularly unfortunate because her situation is not untypical. Like a lot of people, she obtained a liberal arts degree from a private college that never led to a well-paying job. In spite of good faith efforts to pay back her loans, she was dragged down by exorbitant penalties and accruing interest, like thousands of other Americans.

And here is the final outcome. Brenda Butler will continue in a long-term income-based repayment plan that will not conclude until 2037--42 years after she graduated from college! 

Surely this is not what Brenda Butler envisioned when she enrolled at Chapman University in 1991 with bright hopes for a future as a writer.  And surely this is not what Congress envisioned when it passed the Higher Education Act more than 50 years ago.

And that is why Brenda Butler would make a good poster child for the student-loan crisis. A good person, who went to college in good faith and made good faith efforts to pay back her student loans, will be burdened with student-loan debt--mostly penalties and interest--until she reaches retirement age.

References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).