As summarized in the March 2018 issue of the American Bankruptcy Institute Journal, ABI’s Consumer Bankruptcy Committee has recently issued several recommendations and made several observations regarding the treatment of student loans under the Bankruptcy Code, codified in Title 11 of the United States Code.
First, the Committee intends to fashion a program that would address possible ways of securing greater access for consumers owing student loans to the bankruptcy process and competent legal counsel. The Committee praised what they called consumer attorneys’ “very creative litigation to obtain relief for student loan debtors.” However, it noted that “[m]any debtors . . . cannot afford or have no access to attorneys who are willing and able to bring dischargeability [(i.e., elimination)] actions for student loan debt.”
Second, the Committee endorsed procedures, pioneered by the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Middle District of North Carolina and the Western District of Texas (Austin Division), to allow for the repayment of student loans through a Chapter 13 plan. In general, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is also called a “wage earner’s” plan and enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts. The prototype plans so far formulated are limited to loans paid through an income-based repayment plan and thus require debtors to apply for such a plan prior to filing for bankruptcy protection.
Third, the Committee expressed its support for the creation and adoption of court-sponsored student loan debt mediation programs. As currently envisioned, such a program would resemble many bankruptcy courts’ mortgage mediation programs, praised for their effectiveness and efficiency by debtors, creditors, and courts during the financial crisis of 2007-08. As the Committee observed, “a local rule requiring mandatory mediation for student loan dischargeability actions” would do better than the otherwise informal encouragement of such efforts voiced by many bankruptcy judges.
Fourth, the Committee endorsed statutory amendments to Code § 523(a)(8), which governs the discharge of student loans, and § 1322(b), which dictates the permissible content of a Chapter 13 plan.
With respect to § 523(a)(8), the Committee announced its opposition to any wholesale deletion of § 523(a)(8) as urged by some advocates. Instead, it recommends that the following statutory changes be enacted:
(1) that its coverage of private student loans, a change made by Congress in 2005, be rolled back;
(2) that “undue” be struck from this subsection’s “undue hardship” standard, thereby lowering the bar for securing a student loan’s nullification;
(3) that Congress should adopt some guidance as to the appropriate construction of the term “hardship”; and
(4) that the current test for “undue hardship” be replaced by the totality-of-circumstances test favored in the Eighth and First circuits (but not by a majority of bankruptcy courts).
The Committee favored “an amendment to the statute” because, in its words, “[i]t has become all too clear that . . . [Department of Education] policies can be changed with the stroke of a pen and a change in administrations.”
As to § 1322(b), the Committee favors a revision that would allow separate classification and treatment of student loan debt for a debtor enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, as defined under the Higher Education Act of 1965.
“With the high default rate on this debt and the need to preserve this important resource for future students, it is time to explore options for dealing successfully with student loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings,” the Committee concluded.
More information on the Committee and its work can be found here.