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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. Falk said “At this point, at this minute, we’ll savor this particular victory.” “It certainly is a historic week on this front,” Cockrum said. “What a delight ... “Happy Independence Day to the women of the state of Indiana,” WOW. So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)

  2. congratulations on such balanced journalism; I also love how fetus disposal affects women's health protection, as covered by Roe...

  3. It truly sickens me every time a case is compared to mine. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld my convictions based on a finding of “hidden threats.” The term “hidden threat” never appeared until the opinion in Brewington so I had no way of knowing I was on trial for making hidden threats because Dearborn County Prosecutor F Aaron Negangard argued the First Amendment didn't protect lies. Negangard convened a grand jury to investigate me for making “over the top” and “unsubstantiated” statements about court officials, not hidden threats of violence. My indictments and convictions were so vague, the Indiana Court of Appeals made no mention of hidden threats when they upheld my convictions. Despite my public defender’s closing arguments stating he was unsure of exactly what conduct the prosecution deemed to be unlawful, Rush found that my lawyer’s trial strategy waived my right to the fundamental error of being tried for criminal defamation because my lawyer employed a strategy that attempted to take advantage of Negangard's unconstitutional criminal defamation prosecution against me. Rush’s opinion stated the prosecution argued two grounds for conviction one constitutional and one not, however the constitutional true threat “argument” consistently of only a blanket reading of subsection 1 of the intimidation statute during closing arguments, making it impossible to build any kind of defense. Of course intent was impossible for my attorney to argue because my attorney, Rush County Chief Public Defender Bryan Barrett refused to meet with me prior to trial. The record is littered with examples of where I made my concerns known to the trial judge that I didn’t know the charges against me, I did not have access to evidence, all while my public defender refused to meet with me. Special Judge Brian Hill, from Rush Superior Court, refused to address the issue with my public defender and marched me to trial without access to evidence or an understanding of the indictments against me. Just recently the Indiana Public Access Counselor found that four over four years Judge Hill has erroneously denied access to the grand jury audio from my case, the most likely reason being the transcription of the grand jury proceedings omitted portions of the official audio record. The bottom line is any intimidation case involves an action or statement that is debatably a threat of physical violence. There were no such statements in my case. The Indiana Supreme Court took partial statements I made over a period of 41 months and literally connected them with dots… to give the appearance that the statements were made within the same timeframe and then claimed a person similarly situated would find the statements intimidating while intentionally leaving out surrounding contextual factors. Even holding the similarly situated test was to be used in my case, the prosecution argued that the only intent of my public writings was to subject the “victims” to ridicule and hatred so a similarly situated jury instruction wouldn't even have applied in my case. Chief Justice Rush wrote the opinion while Rush continued to sit on a committee with one of the alleged victims in my trial and one of the judges in my divorce, just as she'd done for the previous 7+ years. All of this information, including the recent PAC opinion against the Dearborn Superior Court II can be found on my blog www.danbrewington.blogspot.com.

  4. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  5. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

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