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Bankruptcy discharge pushed for school debt

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Statutes of limitations exist for nearly all federal criminal actions - except for espionage, treason, and since 1991, student loan default.

Delinquent borrowers may be relieved to learn that student loan default – unlike espionage and treason – is not punishable by death. But defaulting on a student loan can have disastrous effects on a borrower’s personal credit and lead to a lifetime of financial difficulties.

In February, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys called on Congress to restore bankruptcy discharge for student loans in its report, “The Student Loan ‘Debt Bomb’: America’s Next Mortgage-Style Economic Crisis?” In the meantime, colleges, federal assistance programs and state governments are taking steps toward reducing loan debt before it becomes unmanageable.

Gradual changes in bankruptcy law put the squeeze on borrowers

In 2010, student borrowing for higher education surpassed $100 billion and total outstanding student loans exceeded $1 trillion for the first time in 2011.

Before 1976, federal student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy. But that year, Congress created an exception to United States Bankruptcy Code to exclude federal student loans from discharge unless they had been in repayment for five years. That exception was included in the 1978 Bankruptcy Act; then in 1990, the five-year repayment provision was changed to seven years. In 2005, Congress eliminated altogether the ability to discharge all federal and most private student loans – with one exception.

Borrowers may – in rare instances – be able to discharge student loan debt if they can prove in court evidence of undue hardship.

“Impossible – I’ve never seen it done,” said Jeff Hester, chair of the Commercial & Bankruptcy Law section of the Indiana-polis Bar Association. “I stopped reading the cases.”

David Ollis, chief counsel for the Chapter 13 trustee in Seymour, said most lawyers don’t even mention that slim chance of proving undue hardship.

“It’s such an uphill battle that most attorneys are putting in their plans: ‘The undersigned debtor will not discharge student loan obligations,’” Ollis said.

The NACBA mentions in its report the challenges in proving undue hardship.

In the case of Marie Brunner v. New York State Higher Education Services Corp., 831 F.2d 935 (2d. Cir. 1987), the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that Marie Brunner failed to meet a three-pronged test of undue hardship: (1) that the debtor cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a “minimal” standard of living for herself and her 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.

In some cases – such as Denise Megan Bronsdon v. Educational Credit Management Corp., 435 B.R. 791 (BAP 1st 2010) – where borrowers attended college later in life, with no evidence to suggest that their job prospects would improve, courts have granted undue hardship. But in order to prove undue hardship discharge, borrowers would need to hire an attorney to sue their lender – an expense that struggling graduates generally cannot afford.

Dangers of default

Last September, the U.S. Department of Education released 2009 cohort default rates, which had increased across all sectors from the prior year.

The rates only consist of borrowers whose first loan repayments came due between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009, and who defaulted before Sept. 30, 2010. Among that group, public institution defaults increased from 6 to 7.2 percent, private institution defaults increased from 4 to 4.6 percent and for-profit default rates jumped from 11.6 to 15 percent.

Ollis said that once student loans enter default, people who enter bankruptcy and make good-faith efforts to repay their debt find their problems are compounded by some sections of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Ollis helped litigate such a case several years ago.

In Joseph M. Black, Jr., Trustee, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Educational Credit Management Corp., and Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education, Defendants-Appellees, 459 F.3d 796 (7th Cir. 2006), Ollis was part of the plaintiff’s counsel in a dispute about collection fees on two defaulted loans.

In that case, David Barnes received Federal Family Education Loan Program loans for $2,000 and $2,625 to attend truck driving school. He defaulted in 1989. Barnes and his wife filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in 1999, and in 2000, Educational Credit Management Corp. filed an unsecured proof of claim in the Barneses’ bankruptcy proceeding for $9,108.01, which represented $7,714.88 in principal and interest on the two defaulted student loans and $1,393.13 in collection costs. The collection costs were 18.06 percent of the $7,714.88 total of the principal and interest Barnes owed by then. ECMC arrived at this figure by using the methodology prescribed in 34 C.F.R. Section 682.410(b)(2), which allows the use of a flat “make whole” rate, in lieu of actual collection costs in the particular case.

Ollis argued that the law unfairly penalizes people who are attempting to make good on their defaulted loans. The Higher Education Act makes defaulters liable for “reasonable” collection costs, which the FFELP calculates based on the loan guarantor’s entire portfolio. That means a borrower who defaults but is trying to repay that debt is paying a pro rata share of collection costs for all other defaulted loans, regardless of whether those other borrowers in default are attempting to repay their debts.

People who enter Chapter 13 with defaulted student loans pay down their other debts so that they may be able to repay their loan debt after emerging from bankruptcy three to five years later. But during that time, their loan debts continue to grow.

“The thing that separates a credit card from a student loan debt is, they’re both unsecured debt, but in a student loan, the interest continues to accrue during bankruptcy,” he said.

Read a related story on how higher education is looking at address the student-loan economic crisis.

The call for reform

Hester said that most clients under age 40 or 45 who file for bankruptcy have student loan debt.

“What I’ve never understood is, why are they non-dischargeable? What is so special about this debt?” Hester asked. He also said that a simple fix – and one not available to student loan borrowers – would be the ability to refinance existing student loans at the prime interest rate.

Alan White, professor of law at Valparaiso University Law School and visiting professor of law at City University of New York, has written extensively about mortgage foreclosure, fair lending and other consumer law issues. He does see some parallels between what’s happening with student loan debt and the housing bubble – particularly because borrowers’ loan debt is growing faster than their ability to pay.

“It’s really the non-dischargeability of the student loan that’s the problem,” he said. “We like to think that bankruptcy is a screening device – there are rules in bankruptcy that keep people who can afford their debts from turning their backs on them.”

Among NACBA’s many recommendations for reform is that Congress re-impose a reasonable statute of limitations on student loan collections. The Higher Education Act Amendments of 1991 removed those limitations. Since then, the government has had the power to pursue for a lifetime people who have defaulted on federal student loans.

Over the years, Ollis has seen a shift in the people filing for bankruptcy.

“We’re seeing more and more student loan debt in these Chapter 13s, and the interesting thing about Chapter 13 is it has moved from people who were formerly working in factories and things like that,” he said. “It’s kind of gone middle class, so to speak.”•

Survey data from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

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  • incroyable
    First off why should the taxpayers be subsidizing the fat salaries of academia who in many cases have been aggressively tearing away at the social fabric of the West for the past 50 years? (Deconstructionism, Marxism, you name it) Is that supposed to be a benefit to the nation? Only if the loans were for engineers and scientists and physicians. taxpayers subsidizing student loans for the erstwhile "humanities" is like the subject of a euthanasia having to pay for the poison in advance.

    Moreover, the debt ought to be nondischargeable like all others. Students are getting tricked into debt slavery and for what? A worthless diploma in many cases and a lifetime of interest-bearing debt they can never escape.

    I would like to see all the class-conflict Marxist professors who have benefitted from the postwar combine of the GI Bill and subsidized student loans to get together and out of solidarity contribute to a lobbying effort to modify student loans and make them dischargeable in bankruptcy. that is the least they can do to help the proletarian student graduates of today as they retire with their pensions and wonderful university ehalth care plans. And let the falsely named "nonprofit" universities soak up the losses. They dont pay enough in taxes to start with, anyhow. most universities could cut their managerial paper pushers by half and still do just as well.

    I compliment this newspaper on this excellent article on a timely issue of signficant public interest. I am sure that the paper will not share the sentiments of the first paragraph of my comment but nonetheless, well done.

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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