Showing posts with label Smith v. U.S. Department of Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Smith v. U.S. Department of Education. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Schatz v. U.S. Department of Education: A 64-year-old student-loan debtor is denied bankruptcy relief because she has equity in her home

Audrey Eve Schatz, a 64-year-old single woman, attempted to discharge $110,000 in student-loans through bankruptcy, but Judge Elizabeth Katz, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge, refused to give Ms. Schatz a discharge. Why?  Because Schatz had enough equity in her home to pay off all her student loans.

This is Ms. Schatz's sad story as laid out in Judge Katz's opinion.

Schatz graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Over the years, she held a variety of low-skill jobs: repairing used clothing, selling items at flea markets, working part-time for a school district, etc.  As Judge Katz acknowledged, none of these jobs were lucrative; and more than 25 years after completing her bachelor's degree, Schatz decided to go to law school.

Schatz studied law at Western New England College School of Law, a bottom-tier law school; and she took out student loans to finance her studies. She graduated with a J.D. degree in 2009, but she failed to find a high-paying job. According to the court, Schatz's net income after graduating from law school never exceeded $15,000.

The U.S. Department opposed Schatz's petition for relief on three grounds:

First, DOE argued that Schatz had not "maximized her skills to increase her earning potential." And in fact, Schatz worked as a volunteer at the Berkshire Center for Justice, a legal aid center she had founded while in law school. But Schatz explained she was working as a volunteer to gain experience as a lawyer while she looked for a paying job; and it seems unlikely she would have worked for free if she had been offered a good attorney's job.

Second, DOE argued that Schatz had not substantiated her claim that health issues hindered her job prospects. DOE said she should have called a medical doctor to testify about her health.

Finally, DOE pointed out that Schatz had equity in her home--enough equity, in fact, to completely pay off her six-figure student-loan debt.

And this was the argument that Judge Katz  found most persuasive. In the judge's opinion, Schatz had at least $125,000 of equity in her home, more than enough to cover her student-loan debt.  According to Judge Katz, Schatz could sell her home, pay off her student loans, and still be able to maintain "a minimal standard of living." In Judge Katz's view, the burden was on Schatz to produce evidence that the home she lived in was necessary to maintain "a minimal standard of living," and that no alternative housing was available at a price similar to her current mortgage payment.

Given the facts of Audrey Schatz's financial circumstances, which Judge Katz verified in her opinion, I found the judge's decision to be shockingly callous.  Schatz is 64 years old--near the end of her working life. As Judge Katz noted in her opinion, Schatz had never made more than a modest wage even after she graduated from law school.

Moreover, Schatz testified at trial that she expected to get a Social Security check of less than $900 a month and that her retirement account contained only $1,800. And Judge Katz wants Ms. Schatz to sell her house!

The Schatz case illustrates just how much depends on the personal qualities of the bankruptcy judge who hears student-loan bankruptcy cases. Remember Judge Frank Bailey, another Massachusetts bankruptcy judge who decided a student-loan case earlier this year?

Judge Bailey expressed frustration with the traditional tests bankruptcy judges are using in student-loan cases: the Brunner test and the "totality-of-circumstances" test. "I pause to observe that both tests for 'undue hardship' are flawed," he wrote. In Judge Bailey's view, "[t]hese hard-hearted tests have no place in our bankruptcy system."

Judge Bailey then went on to articulate a more reasonable standard for determining when a debtor's student loans should 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."

Unfortunately for Audrey Schatz, her bankruptcy case was assigned to Judge Elizabeth Katz and not Judge Frank Bailey. Had Judge Bailey been her judge, Ms. Schatz might have discharged her six-figure student-loan debt and kept her house. Surely this would have been some comfort to her when she enters old age and begins living on a Social Security check of $856.




References

Schatz v. U.S. Department of Education, 584 B.R. 1 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2018).

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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education: A severely stressed student-loan debtor gets bankruptcy relief and the judge questions harsh interpretation of "undue hardship"

Kirt Francisco Smith, a 39-year-old unemployed man with severe health problems, won a bankruptcy discharge of his student-loan debt--almost $50,000.

 Every student-loan debtor's victory in bankruptcy court is something to celebrate; we don't see enough of them. Smith's victory, however, is especially cheering because the judge explicitly challenged the harsh standards the federal courts are using when determining whether student-loan debt is an "undue hardship" eligible for bankruptcy discharge.

Here's Mr. Smith's story as as chronicled by Bankruptcy Judge Frank Bailey. Smith took out $29,000 in student loans to enroll in a computer drafting program at ITT Tech. He completed the program in 2008  but was unable to find a job in the computer drafting field. By the time he filed for bankruptcy his debt had grown to $50,000 due to accumulated interest and fees.

Smith suffers from major health problems. He is afflicted with intractable epilepsy, which prevents him from having a driver's license. In addition, Smith has been diagnosed with affective disorders, including anxiety and depression leading to suicidal ideation. In 2006, he was hospitalized at McLean Psychiatric Hospital; and he has not been employed since that hospitalization. He began receiving Social Security Disability payments in 2007.

During the trial, which stretched out over five days, Smith argued that he could not pay back his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for himself and his dependent mother.  And indeed, Smith and his mother lived on the brink of utter poverty.

Smith received $1369 a month in Social Security income and his mother received $792.26 in Social Security. The two also receive food stamps, which the judge included as income. Altogether then, Smith and his mother lived on $2265.26 a month, which is about $80 less than their expenses.

The U.S. Department of Education opposed a discharge of Smith's student loans, dragging out its usual objections. Smith never made a single payment on his loans, DOE argued, and therefor did not handle his loans in good faith. Smith did not renew his paperwork to stay in an income-based repayment plan--another sign of bad faith.  Finally, DOE objected to the modest sums Smith spent on travel and entertainment.

Fortunately for Smith, Judge Bailey rejected all DOE's arguments and discharged Smith's student loans. The judge utilized the "totality-of-circumstances" test for determining whether Smith's student loans constituted an undue hardship rather then the harsher Brunner test.

Remarkably, Judge Bailey criticized both the Brunner test and the totality-of-circumstances tests. "I pause to observe that both tests for 'undue hardship' are flawed," he wrote (p. 565). In the judge's view, "[t]hese hard-hearted tests have no place in our bankruptcy system."

Judge Bailey then went on to articulate a more reasonable standard for determining when a debtor's student loans 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).

In particular, Judge Bailey criticized other courts' focus on the debtor's good faith.
[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)
What an astonishing decision! To my knowledge, Judge Bailey is the first bankruptcy judge to explicitly attack both the Brunner test and the totality-of-circumstances test. (Judge Jim Pappas criticized the Brunner test in Roth v. ECMC.) Just think how many suffering student-loan debtors would qualify for bankruptcy relief if every judge reasoned like Judge Bailey.

Brenda Butler,  for example, who handled her student loans in good faith only to see her loan balance double over a 20 year period, would have obtained relief if Judge Bailey had been her judge. Ronald Joe Johnson, a bankrupt student-loan debtor who made $24,000 a year by working two jobs, would be free of his student loans if he had appeared in Judge Bailey's court instead of a bankrkuptcy court in Alabama. Janice Stevenson, a woman in her mid-fifties who had a record of homelessness and who lived in rent-subsidized housing and had an income of less than $1,000 a month, would have won a bankruptcy discharge of more than $100,000 in student debt if only Judge Bailey's standard had been applied rather than the harsh rule applied by Judge Joan Feeney.

Today, Judge Bailey's decision in the Smith case is just a straw in the wind, but the day will come when bankruptcy courts will apply his standard universally. After all, as some wise person observed, if a debt cannot be paid back, it won't be.  Right now, about 20 million people are unable to pay back their student loans.  Almost all of them are entitled to bankruptcy relief under the rule articulated by Judge Frankk Bailey.

References

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

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, 541 B.R. 750 (N.D. Ala. 2015).

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 2013). 

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)