The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals
got it wrong when it affirmed a lower court ruling against Mark Tetzlaff, an unemployed 56 year-old man who tried to discharge $260,000 of student-loan debt in bankruptcy. Mr. Tetzlaff filed a petition for certiorari in October with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to have the Seventh Circuit's decision overturned. I hope the Supreme Court agrees to hear his case.
The Seventh Circuit applied the Brunner test too harshly
In ruling against Tetzlaff, the Seventh Circuit determined that requiring Tetzlaff to repay more than a quarter of a million dollars in student-loan debt would not cause him "undue hardship." To reach this bizarre conclusion, the court applied the three-part Brunner
test, which required Tetzlaff to show:
1) [He could] not maintain, based on current income and expenses, a minimal standard of living . . . if forced to repay [his] loan;
2) additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period;
3) [he] made good faith efforts to repay the loans.
At the time Tetzlaff filed his adversary hearing, he was 56 years old, unemployed, and living with his mother. Both he and his mother subsisted entirely on his mother's Social Security check. Thus, the court admitted that Tetzlaff met the first prong of the Brunner
test: he could not pay back his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.
But the Seventh Circuit panel ruled that Tetzlaff had not meet the second prong of the Brunner
test. According to the court,Tetzlaff was required to show "the certainty of hopelessness" concerning his financial future. In essence, the court predicted that Tetzlaff's financial situation will probably improve. After all, the court noted, "he has an MBA, is a good writer, is intelligent, and family issues are largely over" (quoting the lower court's opinion).
Moreover, in the Seventh Circuit's view, Tetzlaff had not made good faith efforts to pay back his loans, a requirement of the Brunner
test's third prong.
Although Tetzlaff may not have made sufficient efforts to repay the $260,000 he was trying to discharge in bankruptcy, he had also borrowed money to attend Florida Coastal Law School; and he had paid back his law school loans. Tetzlaff argued in court that his successful effort to pay off his law-school loans showed his good faith,
But the Seventh Circuit did not buy Tetzlaff's argument. In the court's view, Tetzlaff had not made a good faith effort to repay the $260,000 he owed to Educational Credit Management Corporation, the agency that was fighting Tetzlaff's bankruptcy discharge. Thus he failed the third prong of the Brunner
Where the Seventh Circuit went wrong: Low Job Prospects for Law Graduates
In my view, the Seventh Circuit erred when it refused to discharge Tetzlaff's student loan debt.
First of all, a 56-year old man who is unemployed and has significant mental health issues (as he testified in court) will never pay back more than a quarter of a million in student-loan debt--a debt that is growing larger by the day due to accrued interest. The court would have ruled more realistically and more compassionately if it had applied the principle laid down by the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel in its 2013 Roth decision: "[T]he law does not require a party to engage in futile acts."
It is true Tetzlaff holds an MBA and a law degree, but these credentials are no guarantee of a good job, particularly given his age, his employment history, and his mental health issues. In fact, Tetzlaff's law degree may be almost worthless.
As Paul Campos wrote in his 2012 book, Don't Go To Law School (Unless), the job market for lawyers is terrible. Indeed, Campos observed, "[L]aw schools are now producing more than two graduates for every available job."
And Tetzlaff's prospects for a legal job are especially dire since he failed the bar exam twice. In addition, he graduated from Florida Coastal Law School, one of the nation's bottom-tier law schools with very low admissions standard. According to Law School Transparency
, a public interest group, 50 percent of Florida Coastal's 2014 entering class were at extreme
risk of failing the bar exam based on their LSAT scores.
Law School Transparency pointed out that graduates of law schools with low admission standards have a much harder time obtaining employment than graduates from more prestigious law schools. "Legal job rates are considerably worse at the serious risk schools," Law School Transparency's report stated. "A serious risk school is 4 times as likely to have a below average legal job rate. Nearly three-quarters of schools with employment rates below 50% were serious risk schools."
Law School Transparency's recent report shows that borrowing money to attend a law school with low admissions standards is not a good bet. "Based on available salary data from serious risk schools, graduates from these programs cannot service their debts without generous federal hardship programs."
Nevertheless, Tetzlaff was wise to pay off his law-school debt first, since the law school would not release his diploma to him unless he paid that debt. And without a diploma, he would be unable to take the bar exam. In fact, Tetzlaff had no real choice in prioritizing his law school debt over his other student loan debt.
It is truly unfortunate that the Seventh Circuit showed both lack of compassion and lack of understanding by penalizing Mr. Tetzlaff for making the only sensible financial decision he could make. He simply had to make paying his law-school debt a priority in order to have any hope of ever practicing law.
The Court Should Not Have Allowed ECMC to accuse Tetzlaff of being a malingerer
Educational Credit Management Corporation
, perhaps the nation's most heartless and ruthless student-loan debt collector, opposed the discharge of Tetzlaff's student-loan debt, and it hired Dr. Marc Ackerman, a forensic psychologist, to bolster its case. Ackerman performed tests on Tetzlaff and testified that Tetzlaff "'scored very high on several malingering scales,' indicting that Tetzlaff was perhaps feigning his psychological symptoms."
I find it outrageous that Educational Credit Management Corporation's hired a forensic psychologist as a means of suggesting Tetzlaff is a malingerer. ECMC has fought bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors all over the United States, and its chief executives have grown rich
in the debt collection business. For ECMC to force an unemployed man in his mid-50s to take a psychological exam in a bankruptcy proceeding to determine whether he is a malinger is detestable.
It is true that Tetzlaff introduced testimony about his mental health issues, but I don't think that gives ECMC license to use an expert witness to essentially attack his character. In my opinion, the bankruptcy court should have excluded the forensic psychologist's opinion on the grounds of common decency.
And if we are going to be looking into people's mental health, let's check the mental health status of the ECMC officials who opposed bankruptcy relief for Jane Roth, a 68-year-old woman with chronic health problems who was living solely on the income of a $774 Social Security check. Anyone who would persecute Jane Roth must have serious mental health problems--let's call it chronic undifferentiated greed.
Conclusion: The Seventh Circuit committed a grave error in deciding the Tetzlaff case
decision was a bad decision. Mr. Tetzlaff should be commended for trying to improve his economic prospects by obtaining graduate education, and he should not be penalized because some of his educational choices may have been misguided.
Mr. Tetzlaff probably made a mistake when he borrowed money to attend Florida Coastal Law School. But he should not suffer a lifetime penalty for mistakes he made in his good faith efforts to obtain an education. And people in bankruptcy should not be required to take psychological tests to determine whether they are malingers.
The Department of Education needs to rein in Educational Credit Management Corporation by insisting that it not oppose bankruptcy relief for people like Mark Tetzlaff. Unless it does that, DOE simply cannot continue to say with any credibility that it is trying to relieve the distress of millions of people who are unable to pay back their student loans.
Paul Campos. Don't Go To Law School (Unless). Self-published, 2012.
Roth v Educational Credit Management Corp, 490 B.R. 908, 920 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).
Law School Transparency. 2015 State of Legal Education
. Accessible at: http://lawschooltransparency.com/reform/projects/investigations/2015/
John Hechinger. Taxpayers Fund $454,000 Pay for Collector Chasing Student Loans. Bloomberg.com, May 15, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-15/taxpayers-fund-454-000-pay-for-collector-chasing-student-loans.html
Tetzlaff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 794 F.3d 756 (7th Cir. 2015). Accesible at: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=900247726541956067&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr