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7th Circuit: HEA does not preempt affirmative misrepresentation claims against student loan servicer

Courts Seventh Circuit Appellate Student Lending Student Loan Servicer Higher Education Act

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On June 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit vacated the dismissal of an action against a student loan servicer, concluding a borrower is not barred by the Higher Education Act from asserting state-law claims against a student loan servicer if the borrower reasonably and detrimentally relied on affirmative misrepresentations. The class action filed against a federal student loan servicer alleged that the servicer steered borrowers who were struggling to make payments into repayment plans that benefited the servicer to the detriment of borrowers, notwithstanding claims on the servicer’s website indicating that trained experts would assist each borrower choose among options beneficial to the borrower based on individual circumstances. In addition to violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, the complaint alleged that the servicer’s conduct constituted constructive fraud and negligent misrepresentation under Illinois law. The district court dismissed the claims, holding that they were expressly preempted by Section 1098g of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which states “‘[l]oans made, insured, or guaranteed pursuant to a program authorized by title IV of the [HEA] of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070 et seq.) shall not be subject to any disclosure requirements of any State Law.’”

On appeal, the 7th Circuit disagreed, concluding the district court’s decision was “overly broad.” Specifically, the appellate court found that the statements made on the servicer’s website were “affirmative misrepresentations,” which would not be covered under the HEA. The appellate court distinguished the instant case from the 9th Circuit’s decision in Chae v. SLM Corp, noting the plaintiffs in Chae complained about alleged “failures to disclose key information in specific ways, such as loan terms and repayment requirements.” Here, however, the 7th Circuit panel determined that the preemption principles enunciated in the Chae opinion do not extend to claims about the servicer’s “affirmative misrepresentations in counseling, where [the servicer] could have avoided liability under state law by remaining silent (or telling the truth) on certain topics.”

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