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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

8th Circuit pauses student debt relief program

Courts Student Lending State Issues Department of Education Appellate Eighth Circuit State Attorney General Nebraska Missouri Arkansas Iowa Kansas South Carolina

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On November 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted an emergency motion for injunction pending appeal filed by state attorneys general from Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina to temporarily prohibit the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s student debt relief plan (announced in August and covered by InfoBytes here). Earlier in October, the 8th Circuit issued an order granting an emergency motion filed by the states, which requested an administrative stay prohibiting the discharge of any student loan debt under the cancellation plan until the appellate court had issued a decision on the states’ motion for an injunction pending an appeal. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The October order followed a ruling issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, which dismissed the states’ action for lack of Article III standing after concluding that the states—which attempted “to assert a threat of imminent harm in the form of lost tax revenue in the future”— failed to establish imminent and non-speculative harm sufficient to confer standing.

In granting the emergency motion, the appellate court disagreed with the district court’s assertion that the states lacked standing. The 8th Circuit reviewed whether the state of Missouri could rely on any harm the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA) might suffer as a result of the Department of Education’s cancellation plan. The appellate court found that the relationship between MOHELA and the state is relevant to the standing analysis, especially as Missouri law specifically directs MOHELA (which receives revenue from the student loan accounts it services) to distribute $350 million into the state’s treasury. As such, “MOHELA may well be an arm of the State of Missouri” under this reasoning, the appellate court wrote, adding that several district courts have concluded that MOHELA is an arm of the state. However, regardless of whether MOHELA is an arm of the state, the resulting financial impact due to the cancellation plan would, among other things, affect the state’s ability to fund public higher education institutions, the 8th Circuit noted. “Consequently, we conclude Missouri has shown a likely injury in fact that is concrete and particularized, and which is actual or imminent, traceable to the challenged action of the Secretary, and redressable by a favorable decision,” the appellate court wrote, adding that since one party likely has standing it does not need to address the standing of the other states. The appellate court also determined that “the equities strongly favor an injunction considering the irreversible impact the Secretary’s debt forgiveness action would have as compared to the lack of harm an injunction would presently impose.” The 8th Circuit explained that it considered several criteria, including the fact that the collection of student loan payments and the accrual of interest have both been suspended. The Missouri attorney general released a statement applauding the 8th Circuit’s decision.

The 8th Circuit’s decision follows a recent ruling issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which found that the student loan forgiveness program is “an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s legislative power.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)