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States file brief in support of Biden’s student loan debt-relief program
On January 11, a coalition of 22 state attorneys general from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District Of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in two pending actions concerning challenges to the Department of Education’s student loan debt relief program. At the beginning of December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Biden administration’s appeal of an injunction entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that temporarily prohibits the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s student debt relief plan (covered by InfoBytes here). In a brief unsigned order, the Supreme Court deferred the Biden administration’s application to vacate, pending oral argument. Shortly after, the Supreme Court also granted a petition for certiorari in a challenge currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, announcing it will consider whether the respondents (individuals whose loans are ineligible for debt forgiveness under the plan) have Article III standing to bring the challenge, as well as whether the Department of Education’s debt relief plan is “statutorily authorized” and “adopted in a procedurally proper manner” (covered by InfoBytes here). Oral arguments in both cases are scheduled for February 28.
The states first pointed out that under the Higher Education Act, Congress gave the Secretary “broad authority both to determine borrowers’ loan repayment obligations and to modify or discharge these obligations in myriad circumstances.” The Secretary was also later granted statutory authority under the HEROES Act to take action in times of national emergency, which includes allowing “the Secretary to ‘waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs’ if the Secretary ‘deems’ such actions ‘necessary’ to ensure that borrowers affected by a national emergency ‘are not placed in a worse position financially’ with respect to their student loans.” The states stressed that while “the magnitude of the national emergency necessitating this relief is unprecedented, the relief offered to borrowers falls squarely within the authority Congress gave the Secretary to address such emergencies and is similar in kind to relief granted pursuant to other important federal student loan policies that have concomitantly advanced our state interests.”
The states went on to explain that the Secretary tailored the limited debt relief using income thresholds to ensure that “the borrowers at greatest risk of pandemic-related defaults receive critical relief, either by eliminating their loan obligations or reducing them to a more manageable level,” thus meeting the express goal of the HEROES Act to “prevent affected borrowers from being placed in a worse position because of a national emergency.” The states also stressed that the Secretary reasonably concluded that targeted relief is necessary to address the impending rise in pandemic-related defaults once repayment restarts. The HEROES Act expressly permits the Secretary to “exercise his modification and waiver authority ‘notwithstanding any other provision of law, unless enacted with specific reference to [20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1)],” the states asserted, noting that “relevant statutory and regulatory provisions related to student loan repayment and cancellation contain no such express limiting language.”
Secretary Miguel Cardona issued the following statement in response to the filing of more than a dozen amicus curiae briefs: “The broad array of organizations and experts—representing diverse communities and different perspectives—supporting our case before the Supreme Court today reflects the strength of our legal positions versus the fundamentally flawed lawsuits aimed at denying millions of working and middle-class borrowers debt relief.” A summary of the briefs can be accessed here.
District Court vacates DOE order on student loan servicer’s $22 million repayment
On December 16, the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Virginia vacated and remanded the Department of Education’s (DOE) decision that a student loan servicer (plaintiff) had improperly collected $22 million in student loan-related subsidies from 2002 to 2005. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged that the DOE acted arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act when it determined that the plaintiff erroneously claimed over $22 million in student loan-related subsidies. The plaintiff contended that in claiming those subsidies, it reasonably relied on two 1993 “Dear Colleague Letters” (DCL) from the DOE authorizing it to collect subsidies for student loans funded in whole or in part by tax-exempt obligations. According to the plaintiff, the DOE issued a new DCL in 2007 which disavowed the guidance in the DOE’s two 1993 DCLs, but nonetheless stated that the DOE would not collect past erroneous subsidies if the plaintiff prospectively followed the DOE’s revised interpretation set forth in the 2007 DCL. Nevertheless, the DOE initiated administrative proceedings seeking over $22 million in past subsidies collected by the plaintiff pursuant to the 1993 DCLs. The DOE’s acting secretary ruled in January 2021 that the plaintiff erred when it claimed those subsidies and must pay it back.
The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the DOE’s decision in 2021 failed to consider its reliance on the previous policy statements in the 1993 and 2007 letters. However, the DOE argued it was “unreasonable” for the plaintiff to rely on the DCLs, saying that the loan company should have known that the 1993 letters contradicted the Higher Education Act. Siding with the plaintiff, the court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, which found that when an agency alters existing policy, it must assess “whether there were reliance interests, determine whether they were significant, and weigh any such interests against competing policy concerns.” The court further held that it is DOE's job to “weigh the strength of those reliance interests,” and it failed to do so.
3rd Circuit holds Pennsylvania’s loan servicing claims can proceed
On July 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may pursue claims against a student loan servicer under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) despite a concurrent action brought against the servicer by the CFPB. The appellate court also held that the Commonwealth’s claims under the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law are not preempted by the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). The decision results from a lawsuit filed by the Commonwealth claiming the servicer, among other things, originated risky, high-cost student loans, steered borrowers into forbearance, failed to properly inform borrowers about income-driven repayment options, made misrepresentations related to cosigner release, and misapplied borrower payments. Because the CFPB filed a lawsuit alleging similar claims against the servicer nearly nine months prior to the Commonwealth’s suit, the servicer argued that under the applicable provision of the CFPA, the Commonwealth could not file a concurrent suit. The district court disagreed and denied the servicer’s motion to dismiss.
In addressing whether a concurrent suit is permitted, the appellate court noted, “that the clear statutory language of the [CFPA] permits concurrent state claims, for nothing in the statutory framework suggests otherwise.” With respect to whether the applicable provision of the HEA expressly and impliedly preempts the Commonwealth’s suit, the 3rd Circuit stated that the statute only expressly preempts claims “based on failures to disclose information as required by the statute,” and not claims “based on affirmative misrepresentations.” Thus, because the Commonwealth’s claims were based on alleged affirmative misrepresentations and misconduct, it affirmed the district court’s ruling that the Commonwealth’s case may proceed. The 3rd Circuit highlighted, however, a circuit split over whether the HEA impliedly preempts state-law claims, pointing to the 9th Circuit’s holding that “allowing state law causes of action to proceed would conflict with the purpose of uniformity.” The 3rd Circuit’s decision joins those issued by the 7th and 11th Circuits, which both rejected the argument that uniformity was an intended purpose of the HEA.
The CFPB and the defendants filed with the district court in May dueling motions for summary judgment in the concurrent CFPB action, but the court has yet to issue a ruling on those motions.
State student loan ombudspersons push for automatic student loan discharges for disabled civilian borrowers
On March 3, student loan ombudspersons from seven states and the District of Columbia sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Education (Department) Secretary Betsy DeVos and Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul advocating for the automatic discharge of student loans for eligible borrowers under the Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) loan discharge program. Describing the current TPD program’s application process as “onerous,” the letter cites to the Department’s implementation of a presidential directive in 2019 that granted automatic student loan discharges to disabled veterans (covered by InfoBytes here), as an example of how to provide relief to borrowers “without further burdening them with a cumbersome application process.”
As asserted by the ombudspersons, the Higher Education Act of 1965 makes clear that a qualifying borrower’s loans shall be discharged if the borrower is (i) “permanently and totally disabled,” or (ii) “is ‘unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death, has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 60 months, or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 60 months.” The ombudspersons claim that the current TPD program’s application process is difficult for disabled borrowers to complete, and the difficulties posed by the annual documentation submission requirement during the post-discharge three-year monitoring period poses a risk of “having the discharged loans reinstated.” The student loan ombudspersons urged the Department and the SSA to work together to allow the Secretary to accept information shared by the SSA that the borrower is permanently disabled for the purpose of granting the discharge of student loan debt, and to minimize or eliminate the need for borrowers to proactively participate in the post-discharge monitoring process.
President directs Ed to discharge disabled veterans’ student loan debt
On August 21, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum to Secretary Betsy DeVos of the U.S. Department of Education directing the Department to implement a streamlined process to automatically discharge the federal student loan debt of totally and permanently disabled veterans (TPD discharge). The Higher Education Act currently allows veterans to seek a TPD discharge, but the “process has been overly complicated and difficult, and prevented too many  veterans from receiving the relief for which they are eligible.” The memo notes “[o]nly half of the approximately 50,000 totally and permanently disabled veterans who currently qualify for the discharge” have availed themselves of the benefit. The memo defines “federal student loan debt” as Federal Family Education Loan Program loans, William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program loans, and Federal Perkins Loans, and requires the Department to create a policy to facilitate the swift and effective discharge of the applicable loan. The Department is required to implement the directive “as expeditiously as possible.”
7th Circuit: HEA does not preempt affirmative misrepresentation claims against student loan servicer
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.”
State AGs request automatic discharge of disabled veterans’ student loan debt
On May 24, Attorneys General from 47 states, American territories, and Washington D.C., sent a letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos of the U.S. Department of Education (Department) to implement an automatic discharge process for the student loans of veterans who are totally and permanently disabled or otherwise unemployable (known as a “TPD discharge”). The letter asserts that while the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires that the Department discharge the student loans of veterans who are totally and permanently disabled as a result of service, the Department requires eligible veterans to take “affirmative steps to secure the loan forgiveness,” which “may prove [to be] insurmountable obstacles to relief for many eligible veterans due to the severe nature of their disabilities.” According to the letter, the Department has identified over 42,000 veterans who are eligible for discharges and carry over $1 billion in dischargeable student loan debt, yet fewer than 9,000 of the eligible veterans had applied for the discharge as of April 2018. In response to the Department’s concerns about the veterans’ potential tax liability, the Attorneys General pointed out that federal tax law excludes loan discharges for disabled borrowers from taxable income. Even if the discharge increases their state tax bill, the Attorneys General argued that most borrowers would prefer to have their outstanding loans completely discharged, and those that do not could be given notice and an opportunity to opt out. Because there is no statutory requirement that eligible veterans apply for the TPD discharges, the Attorneys General urged the Department to implement a program to automatically discharge the outstanding loans as expeditiously as possible.
District of Columbia moves to dismiss lawsuit alleging city’s student loan servicer regulations are preempted by federal law
On September 7, the District of Columbia filed a memorandum in support of its motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that the city’s regulations and requirements for student loan servicers are preempted by federal law. The plaintiff, a D.C.-based trade group whose membership consists of national student loan servicers, argues in its complaint that various provisions of District of Columbia Law 21-214, and rules promulgated thereunder, are preempted by the Federal Higher Education Act (HEA). For example, the complaint alleges that the licensing, examination, and annual reporting requirements are expressly preempted by the HEA, and the requirement to provide records to the D.C. Commissioner of Securities and Banking, upon request, violates the requirement that third party requests for records be made directly to the Department of Education.
The city countered that the potential harm is “hypothetical” and the plaintiff’s preemption claims are insufficient to establish standing. Several nonprofit groups filed an amicus brief in support of the city, stating that the lawsuit “is part of a strenuous effort by the Department and loan servicers not to protect federal interests, but to reach an outcome whereby no government entity provides meaningful regulation.” Moreover, the amicus brief claims that the lawsuit was filed following the Department’s Interpretation issued last March (as previously covered in InfoBytes here), which took the position that state regulation of Direct Loan servicing is broadly preempted by the HEA because it “impedes uniquely Federal interests,” and state regulation of the servicing of Federal Family Education Program Loans “is preempted to the extent that it undermines uniform administration of the program.”
District Court holds Department of Education stay of student loan regulations is procedurally invalid
On September 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of a consolidated action brought by a coalition of 19 state Attorneys General and the District of Columbia as well as two student borrowers (collectively, the plaintiffs), holding that the Department of Education’s (Department) decision to delay the enactment of Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”) was “procedurally invalid.” The Borrower Defense Regulations, published November 2016, afford students protections against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions (see previous InfoBytes coverage here), and were set to take effect July 1, 2017. However, the Department delayed the effective date pending the resolution of a lawsuit challenging certain portions of the regulations filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools; delayed the effective date further through an interim rule issued in October 2017; and last February, issued a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019.
The Department argued it was entitled to a stay under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act because the lawsuit “raised serious questions concerning the validity of certain provisions of the final regulations and ha[d] identified substantial injuries that could result if the final regulations [went] into effect before those questions [were] resolved.” The court disagreed with the Department’s argument, finding that in order to justify a Section 705 stay, “an agency must, in short, do more than simply assert—without elaboration—that the litigation raises unspecified ‘serious questions’ for resolution and that a stay will save regulated parties the cost of compliance.” Moreover, the court concluded that (i) plaintiffs have standing to challenge the Department’s delay actions; (ii) the Department’s 2017 interim final rule “is based on an unlawful construction of the Higher Education Act”; (iii) the February final rule is “procedurally invalid”; and (iv) the Section 705 stay is “judicially reviewable” and “arbitrary and capricious.”
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