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  • 6th Circuit affirms district court’s decision to discard case for lack of standing

    Courts

    On May 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s sua sponte dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. This case was brought by two nonprofit organizations seeking to halt the Department of Education’s (DOE) plan to provide participants in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program with a one-time account adjustment that would allow time spent in excessive forbearance status to count toward debt forgiveness under the program, as announced in April 2022 and July 2023. Plaintiffs alleged standing on the basis that they “have previously employed, and currently employ, borrowers who participate, may become eligible to participate, or have previously participated in the statutory PSLF program” and “expect to recruit other such employees in the future.” Notably, and not long after filing their complaint in the lower court, plaintiffs filed an ex parte motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, seeking to prevent the Department of Education from discharging any debt through the long-term forbearance aspect of the adjustment. Before defendants could respond, however, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed plaintiffs’ complaint sua sponte without prejudice. 

    On appeal, plaintiffs argued that they were not required to link the proposed adjustment to a specific tangible loss and that the adjustment injured them by reducing their expected benefits under a loan forgiveness program. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. It found plaintiffs failed to allege standing due to an injury resulting “from the [student loan] adjustment based on competitor standing and deprivation of a procedural right” and affirmed the dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

    Courts Student Loans Appellate Department of Education

  • CFPB releases consumer advisory for student borrowers notifying them of April deadline to cancel

    Federal Issues

    On March 11, the CFPB published a consumer advisory notifying student loan borrowers that they may have an opportunity to cancel or receive credits toward the cancellation of their student loans but some borrowers will need to consolidate their loans by April 30 in order to obtain the benefit. The Department of Education has implemented a “one-time adjustment” to help borrowers receive credit toward federal student loan cancellation. This adjustment is designed to enable the counting of more payments, including all payments made on federally managed loans since July 1, 1994, as well as certain periods of deferment, economic hardship, and forbearance. Generally, federal student loans are eligible for Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans, which offer loan cancellation after 10, 20, or 25 years of qualifying payments, or after 10 years for those pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), provided other eligibility criteria are met. The Bureau also noted that consolidation is free, warning against scammers who would charge for that service.

     

    Federal Issues CFPB Consumer Finance Student Lending Department of Education Income-Driven Repayment

  • FTC bans student loan “scammers” from debt relief industry

    Federal Issues

    On February 6, the FTC announced two orders (here and here) that will ban a group of student loan debt relief “scammers” (defendants) from the debt relief industry. As previously covered by InfoBytes, defendants allegedly misled consumers by charging them for services that are free through the Department of Education, claiming consumers needed to pay fees or make payments to access federal student loan forgiveness. As a consequence, the FTC filed a temporary restraining order resulting in an asset freeze, among other things.  

    As a result of the FTC’s action, and subject to court approval, defendants are banned from operating in the debt relief industry, as well as prohibited from making false statements about financial products or services and from using deceptive tactics to gather consumers’ financial information. Moreover, the proposed orders include a monetary judgment of $7.4 million, with a significant portion suspended due to financial constraints. Defendants must surrender personal and business assets, and if any of them materially misrepresent their finances, the entire monetary judgment will become immediately payable.   

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Junk Fees Student Loans Consumer Protection FTC Act Department of Education

  • Biden Administration, DOE withhold payments to student loan servicers

    Federal Issues

    On January 5, the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced they are withholding payments to three student loan servicers as part of their efforts to strengthen protections for student loan borrowers and ensure accountability among servicers. The three servicers were found to have collectively failed in sending timely billing statements to a total of 758,000 borrowers during their first month of repayment. Consequently, the DOE is withholding $2 million from one servicer, $161,000 from the second, and $13,000 from the third servicer based on the number of affected borrowers.

    U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona emphasized that the DOE “will continue to engage in aggressive oversight of student loan servicers and put the interests of borrowers first.” During this period, borrowers will not be required to make payments, and any accrued interest will be adjusted to zero. Additionally, the months spent in administrative forbearance will count toward forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness or income-driven repayment forgiveness. The DOE aims to ensure that borrowers are not negatively affected by these errors.

    Furthermore, to protect borrowers from penalties due to late or missed payments during the repayment transition, the DOE recently sent a letter to credit reporting agencies and credit scoring companies to remind them that borrowers’ current payment behavior may not accurately reflect their ability or willingness to make payments.

    Federal Issues Department of Education Biden Student Loan Servicer Student Lending

  • DOJ and DOE share success after first year of student loan bankruptcy discharge process

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On November 16, the DOJ and DOE announced a successful first year of their new student loan bankruptcy discharge process during 2022. The discharge process extinguishes a borrower’s obligation to pay back either some or all of a student loan in bankruptcy based on undue hardship. The DOJ cites two previous standards used by bankruptcy courts to determine if a borrower’s repayment would cause an undue hardship: the Brunner and Totality Tests. The DOJ’s guidance simplified the current standards to enhance “consistency and equity in the handling of these cases” and applies in both Burner and Totality Test jurisdictions. The guide permits a court to grant a discharge if three conditions are satisfied: (i) “the debtor presently lacks an ability to pay the loan”; (ii) “the debtor’s inability to pay the loan is likely to persist in the future”; and (iii) “the debtor has acted in good faith in attempting to repay the loan.”

    The DOJ reported the success of their new guidance with several findings: (i) there were 632 cases filed in the first 10 months of the new process, a significant increase from recent years; (ii) this process was used by 97 percent of all borrowers; (iii) 99 percent of borrowers received either full or partial discharges; and (iv) two bankruptcy courts adopted this process. The DOJ is optimistic that some or all these trends will continue.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Federal Issues DOJ Department of Education Student Lending Bankruptcy Supervision Consumer Finance

  • DOE moves to empower student loan oversight for better borrower support

    Federal Issues

    On November 9, the DOE announced it is outlining a framework for how it will increase borrower support and ensure student loan servicers are accountable for errors. Richard Cordray, Federal Student Aid (FSA) Chief Operating Officer, noted, “The landscape of loan servicing has substantially changed since the Department began collaboration with multiple servicers in 2009. FSA is dedicated to evolving servicing contracts to meet borrower requirements. As we approach the Direct Loan program’s unprecedented return to repayment, our upcoming transition to new contracts in 2024 will bring updated servicer obligations and increased avenues to ensure borrowers receive adequate support.”

    The DOE has implemented various strategies to bolster oversight and monitoring of servicers:

    • Direct Servicer Monitoring: FSA staff actively evaluate the quality of customer service provided by loan servicers, which involves scoring interactions between servicers’ representatives and borrowers, reviewing calls and chats, and conducting secret shopper calls to assess the accuracy of servicers’ responses to borrower inquiries.
    • Partnership with Federal and State Regulators: The DOE collaborates with agencies like the CFPB and state attorneys general responsible for enforcing consumer financial laws. Updates in the interpretation of federal preemption provide clear guidance for the ability of states to enforce state consumer protection laws and allow for coordination between the DOE and state partners.
    • Utilizing Borrower Complaints: The DOE leverages complaints filed through the FSA’s Office of the Ombudsman, which collaborates with the oversight team to discern if complaints signal wider servicer issues. The DOE also monitors social media and news stories to identify broader patterns of complaints, which allow the DOE to discern isolated instances from systemic errors affecting multiple borrowers. These listening tools serve as mechanisms for borrowers to report issues impacting their repayment directly.

    The DOE and the Biden administration wield several measures to ensure servicers meet their obligations and maintain standards. The announcement highlighted that the DOE could withhold payments from servicers failing to serve borrowers adequately, as exemplified by the recent $7.2 million withheld from a Missouri servicer for delayed billing statements to 2.5 million borrowers. The DOE also has the authority to suspend or re-allocate borrowers to other servicers, which impacts the financial compensation of underperforming servicers. In addition, Contractor Performance Reports assess servicer performance and influence future contract awards, while Corrective Action Plans demand remedies for servicing errors to ensure borrower satisfaction and prevent reoccurrence. The DOE also safeguards borrowers from servicer errors by instructing servicers to grant affected borrowers a temporary administrative forbearance during error resolution. Additionally, the DOE directs servicers to count these periods as qualifying for loan forgiveness and adjusts accrued interest to zero when errors might impede borrowers’ progress toward forgiveness.

    Finally, the DOE mentioned it is gearing up to transition to the USDS, a new loan servicing system, by spring 2024. This shift aims to enhance accountability, transparency, and performance evaluation for over 37 million federally managed student loan borrowers with a focus on rewarding good performance and ensuring servicers meet higher standards. By incentivizing servicers to maintain borrowers’ repayment status and improving tracking mechanisms, the DOE will prioritize borrower success and aim for a smoother repayment experience.

    Federal Issues Student Lending Department of Education Student Loan Servicer

  • District Court files temporary restraining order to stop scammers in FTC suit

    Federal Issues

    On August 21, the FTC announced it has stopped California-based scammers (defendants) who allegedly preyed on students seeking debt relief by pretending to be affiliated with the Department of Education. According to the August 14 complaint, since at least 2019, the defendants allegedly targeted students and illegally collected $8.8 million in advance fees in exchange for student loan debt relief services that did not exist. The defendants allegedly misled consumers by charging them for services that are free through the Department of Education, claiming consumers needed to pay fees or make payments to access federal student loan forgiveness, using names like "Biden Loan Forgiveness," that does not correspond to any actual government program. For instance, one consumer was asked to pay $375 for a processing fee to have up to $20,000 in loans forgiven because of a Pell Grant. Another was told they would get a $10,000 reduction in their loan balance and a new repayment plan with six $250 monthly payments under the “student loan forgiveness program.” The FTC alleges violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive acts or practices, TCPA, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. The complaint also alleges that the defendants used such misrepresentations to illegally obtain consumers’ banking information, and typically collected hundreds of dollars in unlawful advance fees—sometimes through remotely created checks in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The U.S. District Court of the Central District of California filed a temporary restraining order, resulting in an asset freeze, among other things. The FTC seeks preliminary, and permanent injunctive relief, monetary relief, and other relief.

    Federal Issues Courts Enforcement FTC Department of Education Student Lending Consumer Protection FTC Act TCPA Gramm-Leach-Bliley Deceptive

  • District Court dismisses suit challenging Biden’s student debt relief plan

    Courts

    On August 14, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed without prejudice a lawsuit filed against the federal government aimed at blocking the Biden administration’s effort to provide debt relief to student borrowers (covered by InfoBytes here). U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington held that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they failed to plausibly demonstrate how the government’s plans would impact their efforts to recruit participants as qualified employers under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The court detailed that “[Plaintiffs] merely make vague and conclusory statements that some ‘undisclosed’ number of borrowers will receive credit toward loan forgiveness for some periods of forbearance” but “do not allege that any current employee received Adjustment credit.” Furthermore, any such “hypothetical injur[y]” would be traceable to “Plaintiffs’ own employees or prospective employees, not the Adjustment.” Because there was no standing, the court dismissed the complaint without prejudice and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction as moot.

    Courts Federal Issues Biden Student Lending Michigan Department of Education Income-Driven Repayment PSLF

  • Plaintiffs file suit challenging Biden’s latest student debt relief plan

    Courts

    On August 4, two nonprofit entities filed a lawsuit against the federal government aimed at blocking the Biden administration’s recent effort to provide debt relief to student borrowers. The administration’s efforts were implemented in response to the Supreme Court’s June 30 decision striking down the DOE’s student loan debt relief program that would have canceled between $10,000 and $20,000 in debt for certain student borrowers (covered by InfoBytes here). The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, targets the administration’s efforts to credit borrowers participating in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) plan and Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan by providing credit for periods when loans were in forbearance or deferment, which would affect more than 804,000 borrowers, forgiving approximately $39 billion in loan payments, according to the DOE.

    As an initial matter, plaintiffs assert that they are injured by the administration’s actions because, as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, they benefit from the PSLF program by allowing them to “attract and retain borrower-employees who might otherwise choose higher-paying employment with non-qualifying employers in the private sector.” Thus, according to plaintiffs, cancellation of PSLF loans would reduce the incentive for borrowers to work at public service employers and the decision “unlawfully deprives [PSLF] employers of the full statutory benefit to which they are entitled under PSLF.”

    Plaintiffs accuse the administration of putting the plan on an “accelerated schedule apparently designed to evade judicial review.” The plaintiffs assert that the DOE lacks authority to classify “non-payments as payments,” and that the statutes for the PSLF and IDR programs require actual payments to qualify for forgiveness under each plan. The suit brings four claims against the administration: (i) violation of the Appropriation Clause of the U.S. Constitution by canceling debt that Congress did not authorize; (ii) violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by issuing a final agency decision without appropriate statutory authority; (iii) violation of the APA by taking an arbitrary and capricious agency action by failing to “explain why [DOE] has changed its policy from not crediting non-payments during periods of loan forbearance to crediting such payments for purposes of PSLF and IDR forgiveness” and “entirely fail[ing] to consider the cost to taxpayers of crediting periods of forbearance toward PSLF and IDR forgiveness,” among other reasons; and (iv) violation of the APA by failing to undertake notice-and-comment procedures in implementing the changes. 

    Courts Federal Issues Biden Student Lending Michigan Department of Education Income-Driven Repayment PSLF

  • DOE recognizes states’ role in investigating student loan servicers

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On July 24, the Department of Education (DOE) issued a final interpretation to clarify that the Higher Education Act (HEA) preempts state laws and other applicable federal laws “only in limited and discrete respects.” Specifically, the final interpretation revises and clarifies the DOE’s position on the legality of state laws and regulations regarding certain aspects of the federal student loan servicing, including preventing unfair or deceptive practices, correcting misapplied payments, or addressing servicers’ refusals to communicate with borrowers.

    The final interpretation supersedes a 2021 DOE interpretation (covered by InfoBytes here), as well as prior statements and interpretations issued by the agency, which addressed state regulation of the servicing of student loans under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Family Education Loan Program. Following a review of public comments, the DOE modified its interpretation to more clearly describe the standard for conflict preemption, explaining that recent court rulings on the issue of conflict preemption have consistently found that the HEA does not prioritize maintaining uniformity in federal student loan servicing, and that as a result, the courts have upheld the authority of individual states to address fraud and affirmative misrepresentations in the federal student aid program without being hindered by federal preemption. Additionally, the DOE noted that courts have consistently applied conflict preemption to state laws that require licensing of the DOE’s student loan servicers, particularly in limited circumstances where the licensing requirement aims to disqualify a federal contractor from operating within the state. The final interpretation states that it is firmly established that states cannot hinder the federal government's ability to choose its contractors by imposing such licensing requirements, noting that two courts recently concluded that such preemption also applies to a state’s refusal to license federal student loan servicers.

    The final interpretation is effective immediately.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance State Issues Department of Education Student Lending Student Loan Servicer Higher Education Act Preemption

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