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2nd Circuit affirms dismissal in FCRA suit
On January 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment for a credit reporting agency (defendant) in a suit alleging FCRA violations. According to the opinion, four years after the plaintiff took out a student loan, he filed for bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy court issued a final decree of discharge, which released the plaintiff from all “dischargeable debts,” but did not specifically indicate that the loan was discharged. The student loan servicer indicated that the student loan was not discharged, and the plaintiff executed a loan modification agreement with the loan holder and made payments for several years. The plaintiff filed suit against the defendant consumer reporting agency, alleging that it violated the FCRA and New York law for including the loan on his credit report. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant after determining that the consumer’s loan had not been discharged. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit noted that the plaintiff’s claim “hinges on the resolution of an unsettled legal question”: whether the loan was in fact discharged in the bankruptcy proceeding. Making such a determination would have required the defendant to resolve a legal question related to the debt, which the appellate court concluded was not required under the FCRA. As a result, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint because the alleged inaccuracy is not considered to not be an actionable “inaccuracy” under the FCRA.
DOJ, DOE announce process for discharging federal student loans in bankruptcy
On November 17, the DOJ, in coordination with the Department of Education (DOE), announced a new process for handling cases involving individuals seeking to discharge their federal student loans in bankruptcy. According to the DOJ, the process will leverage DOE data and a new borrower-completed attestation form to assist the government in assessing a borrower’s discharge request. The DOJ also noted that the process “will help ensure consistent treatment of the discharge of federal student loans, reduce the burden on borrowers of pursuing such proceedings and make it easier to identify cases where discharge is appropriate,” and “help borrowers who did not think they could get relief through bankruptcy more easily identify whether they meet the criteria to seek a discharge.” The DOJ and the DOE will review the information provided, apply the factors that courts consider relevant to the undue-hardship inquiry, and determine whether to recommend that the bankruptcy judge discharge the borrower’s student loan debt. The DOJ also distributed guidance outlining the new process to all U.S. Attorneys.
DOE announces final rules for targeted debt relief programs
On October 31, the Department of Education (DOE) announced final rules to streamline and improve targeted debt relief programs. (See DOE fact sheet here.) The final rules implement several changes to protect student borrowers, including:
- Borrower defense to repayment and arbitration. The final rules establish a strong framework for borrowers to raise a defense to repayment if their post-secondary institution misleads or manipulates them. Claims pending on or received on or after July 1, 2023, can be decided individually or as a group, and may be based on one of the following categories of actionable circumstances: substantial misrepresentation, substantial omission of fact, breach of contract, aggressive and deceptive recruitment, or judgments or final secretarial actions. The final rules will only provide full relief (partial discharges will not be considered), with approved claims requiring “that the institution committed an act or omission which caused the borrower detriment of such a nature and degree that warrant full relief” based upon a preponderance of the evidence. Additionally, the final rules establish certain recoupment processes for DOE to pursue institutions for the cost of approved claims, and will allow borrowers to litigate their case “by preventing institutions that participate in the Direct Loan program from requiring borrowers to engage in pre-dispute arbitration or sign class action waivers.”
- Closed school discharges. The final rules provide an automatic discharge of a borrower’s loan “one year after a college’s closure date for borrowers who were enrolled at the time of closure or left 180 days before closure and who do not accept an approved teach-out agreement or a continuation of the program at another location of the school.” Borrowers who accept but do not complete a teach-out agreement or program continuation will receive a discharge one year after the last date of attendance.
- Total and permanent disability discharge. The final rules include new options for borrowers who have had a total and permanent disability to receive a discharge, including borrowers (i) who receive additional types of disability review codes from the Social Security Administration (SSA); (ii) who later aged into retirement benefits and are no longer classified by one of SSA’s codes; (iii) who have an established disability onset date determined by SSA to be at least 5 years in the past; and (iv) whose first continuing disability review is scheduled at three years. The final rules also eliminate a three-year income monitoring requirement.
- Interest capitalization. Under the final rules, “interest will no longer be added to a borrower’s principal balance the first time a borrower enters repayment, upon exiting a forbearance, and leaving any income-driven repayment plan besides Income-Based Repayment.” Specifically, the final rules eliminate all instances where interest capitalization—which occurs when a borrower has outstanding unpaid interest added to the principal balance—is not required by law.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the final rules will provide benefits for borrowers seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness, including providing credit toward the program for borrowers who have qualifying employment.
- False certification. The final rules will provide borrowers with an easier path to discharge when a college falsely certifies a borrower’s eligibility for a student loan. This includes expanding allowable documentation, clarifying applicable discharge dates, and allowing for the consideration of group discharges.
The final rules are effective July 1, 2023.
DOE discharges an additional $1.5 billion in student loans
On August 30, the Department of Education announced $1.5 billion in debt relief for 79,000 borrowers who enrolled in a college accused of “routinely [misleading] prospective students by grossly misrepresenting that its credentials would benefit their career prospects and earning potential.” According to a Department investigation aided by significant evidence from the Colorado and Illinois attorneys general, the college engaged in widespread misrepresentations “in order to profit off student debt that burdened borrowers long after [the college] closed.” Borrowers’ student loans will be discharged regardless of whether an individual has applied for a discharge under the borrower defense to repayment program, and without requiring any additional action on behalf of the borrowers. The announcement builds on the previous approval of $130 million in borrower defense discharges for approximately 4,000 borrowers who had attended the college.
The Department also announced that it plans to engage in future rulemaking “to hold career programs accountable for leaving their graduates with mountains of unaffordable debt and poor job prospects,” and said it is planning “new actions to hold accountable institutions that have contributed to the student debt crisis including publishing lists of the worst actors.” With this recent announcement, the Department of Education “has now approved $14.5 billion in discharges for nearly 1.1 million borrowers whose colleges took advantage of them.”
Ed. Dept. discharges additional $3.9 billion
On August 16, the Department of Education announced that 208,000 borrowers who attended a large for-profit post-secondary education institution will receive full student loan discharges totaling $3.9 billion. The announcement builds on previous actions taken by the Department that have resulted in the approval of $1.9 billion in discharges for another 130,000 borrowers, including borrower defense findings that the institution “engaged in widespread and pervasive misrepresentations related to the ability of students to get a job or transfer credits” and lied about certain program accreditation. State attorneys general around the country, the CFPB, and Veterans Education Success also provided significant assistance in the Department’s findings. The Department referred in its announcement to a 2014 CFPB action, which alleged that the institution pressured students into taking out high-cost private loans even though it allegedly knew that most students would ultimately default. The Bureau ultimately announced a judgment barring the institution from offering or providing student loans, and obtained judgments against several entities accused of providing substantial assistance to the institution (covered by InfoBytes here). “While today’s action affects federal loans, and while past CFPB actions have addressed many of the private loans peddled by [the institution],” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in remarks following the announcement, he stressed that the Bureau “will continue our work with the Department of Education and other regulators to open up the books on in-house institutional lending programs—these are private loans pushed directly by schools—to ensure that they are not strongarming their students with illegal practices.”
The Department also announced that it has notified another for-profit institution that it is required to pay millions of dollars for approved borrower defense to repayment discharges. The institution can present arguments as to why it should not be required to pay or request a hearing before the Department’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, the Department said.
Ed. Dept. discharges additional $5 billion
On June 1, the Department of Education announced the “largest single loan discharge the Department has made in history,” which includes discharging all remaining federal student loans borrowed to attend any campus owned or operated by a specific large for-profit post-secondary education company from its founding in 1995 through April 2015. The action will result in 560,000 borrowers receiving $5.8 billion in full loan discharges. According to the Department, the post-secondary education company engaged in “widespread and pervasive misrepresentations,” including guarantees that students would find a job. Additionally, the company “made pervasive misstatements to prospective students about the ability to transfer credits and falsified their public job placement rates.” The Department noted that the California AG’s investigation alleged that the company engaged in deceptive and false advertising and recruitment practices, as well as lied to its students about job placement. The Department noted it has approved $25 billion in loan relief to individuals since President Biden took office.
On June 2, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra released a statement regarding the discharge, referring to the company as a “ notorious repeat offender that defrauded its students and the public over many years.” Chopra also noted that the CFPB and state attorneys general actively pursued the company for its misconduct. Chopra pointed to when the Bureau “filed a lawsuit in 2014, obtained a default judgment and secured $480 million in private student loan cancellation in 2015, and won another $183 million in loan cancellation in 2017.” Chopra further noted that “[i]n 2016, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris won a $1.1 billion judgment against [the company].”
Ed. Dept. discharges additional $238 million
On April 28, the Department of Education announced it will deliver relief to tens of thousands of borrowers harmed by “pervasive and widespread misconduct” at a beauty school. According to the Department, the students attended the beauty school between 2009 and 2016, during which it “engaged in pervasive and widespread misconduct that negatively affected all borrowers who enrolled.” The 28,000 borrowers will receive loan discharges totaling approximately $238 million, which will provide relief to borrowers who enrolled at the beauty school during this period, including those who have not yet applied for a borrower defense discharge. According to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Department will “continue to strengthen oversight and enforcement for colleges and career schools that engaged in misconduct and uphold the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to helping students who have been harmed.” The Office of Federal Student Aid also announced it is hiring four employees for its enforcement unit.
Education Dept. announces new TPD discharge measures for student borrowers
On August 19, the U.S. Department of Education announced that more than 323,000 student loan borrowers who have a total and permanent disability (TPD) will receive automatic discharges totaling over $5.8 billion. Under the final regulations, applicable borrowers will be identified through an existing data match with the Social Security Administration starting with the September quarterly match to allow “the Department to provide automatic TPD discharges for borrowers who are identified through administrative data matching by removing the requirement for these borrowers to fill out an application before receiving relief.” Borrowers matched with the Department of Veterans Affairs have already been able to take advantage of the TPD discharge data match since 2019. Two additional TPD-related policy items were also announced: (i) the Department will indefinitely extend a previously announced policy to stop asking borrowers to provide earnings information beyond the end of the national emergency (“a process that results in the reinstatement of loans if and when borrowers do not respond”); and (ii) the Department will propose eliminating the currently required three-year income monitoring period during a negotiated rulemaking that will begin in October.
Department of Education streamlines borrower defense relief process
On March 18, the Department of Education announced a new, streamlined approach for ensuring federal borrowers who attended institutions that engaged in certain misconduct are able to receive full discharges of their William D. Ford Direct Loan Program loans. The new approach—which rescinds a methodology announced in December 2019 that relied “on publicly available earnings data and a scientifically robust statistical methodology to determine harm”—will immediately create a path for borrowers with approved borrower defense claims to date to receive full loan discharges, including borrowers who already had their claims approved and received only partial relief. In addition, the Department said full relief under the new approach will also include requests to credit bureaus to remove any negative ratings tied to the loans, and reinstatement of a borrower’s federal student aid eligibility, where applicable.
- Keisha Whitehall Wolfe to discuss “Tips for successfully engaging your state regulator” at the MBA's State and Local Workshop
- Max Bonici to discuss “Enforcement risk and trends for crypto and digital assets (Part 2)” at ABA’s 2023 Business Law Section Hybrid Spring Meeting
- Jedd R. Bellman to present “An insider’s look at handling regulatory investigations” at the Maryland State Bar Association Legal Summit