Discharging Student Loans in 2019

I have created a Google Alert for Student Loan Crisis. Every day my inbox tells me about one or another tales of how unpayable student loans are the key stressors for Millenials and Generation Z. One of the best measures for the sense of where our country is going is to analyze trending cases in bankruptcy courts that consider whether to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

As many of us know, the general rule is that student loans are not dischargeable unless the debtor can show that the loans impose an “undue hardship.” While the Bankruptcy Code does not define this phrase, most courts have adopted a three part approach known as the “Brunner Test” to determine whether a debtor’s repayment of student loans after bankruptcy constitute “undue hardship.” The three parts, all of which must be satisfied, are:

  1. Will repaying the loan force the debtor to live an existence below a minimum standard of living?
  2. Will this condition likely persist into the foreseeable future?
  3. Has the debtor made a good faith effort to repay the student loans?

While the U.S. Supreme Court has not stated that the Brunner Test is the sole applicable standard, it has become the widely acknowledged standard around the country. I’ve taken a look at ten of the most recent student loan opinions to see if we can draw any conclusions about national trends in discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

In re Halatek (Eastern District of North Carolina)

  • Amount of Loan: 114,783
  • Held: Although Chapter 7 debtor suffered from Hypermobile Ethles-Danlos Syndrome and narcolepsy, she was gainfully employed by the State of North Carolina in a tenured, non-legal position, earned $66,192 in salary in 2016, debtor could not meet the first prong of the Brunner test because she had the ability to make payments on her student loan debt, while maintaining a minimal standard of living, if she reduced her discretionary expenses.

Analysis: North Carolina is a low income state, and $66,192 (right around median for a family of three) seemed simply too high for this court to find that this debtor could eliminate her student loans, notwithstanding her debilitating illness.

In re Tinsley (New Jersey)

  • Held: 1) whether or not a debtor is eligible for a zero-dollar-per-month repayment plan is not outcome determinative as to the first prong of the Brunner test. If the court finds that a debtor has reasonable expenses that significantly exceed their income and they would be unable to pay any loan amount, then the first prong is satisfied, even if a zero-dollar-per-month repayment plan is an option. 2) Debtor does not satisfy second prong of Brunner test where debtor medical condition does not prevent her from maintaining full-time employment for a significant portion of the repayment period, debtor’s expenses will decrease dramatically for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans, and debtor failed to produce any evidence that showed how her student loans have created a “stigma” in her life and how that stigma will impact her for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans.

Analysis: the Court added a “stigma” gloss to the second Brunner prong where none had existed previously. Plus, the likelihood that expenses would decrease caused the court to refuse to discharge the student loans.

In re Quackenbush (Southern District of Mississippi)

  • Amount of loan: $30,809 and $7,760 in accrued interest
  • Held: Debtor could not survive DOE’s motion for summary judgement even though debtor was unemployed and supporting her mother and mentally disabled daughter where debtor did not produce evidence that her situation was likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of her loans, or that she had made a good faith effort to repay.

Analysis: the evidence required to discharge the student loan must be applied to every prong of the Brunner test. Borrowers frequently run afoul of the third prong because they have been simply unable to make any payments at all.

In re Regan (New Mexico)

  • Amount of Loan: $50,000
  • Held: Debtor, a 62 year old with an annual income of $44,444 could not discharge loans under Brunner because under the first prong of the Brunner test, evidence of her financial condition established that she could maintain a minimal standard of living even if forced to repay her student loans under an income-based repayment plan and public service loan forgiveness program; if she made payments under an IBRP, took advantage of the PSLFP, and made 114 consecutive qualifying payments, the remaining balance of her student loan debt would be forgiven in nine years, when she was 72.

Analysis: This opinion demonstrates the bias against discharging student loans in bankruptcy. The income of $44,444 was below the state median income, even for a household of only one person.

In re Lozada (SDNY)

  • Held: debtor fails first prong of Brunner test where his expenditures indicated that he lived a comfortable lifestyle and the record did not reveal any efforts to minimize discretionary expenses. Also, debtor has at least $1,400 of surplus income that he could apply towards paying his student loans. Debtors’ charitable donations totaling more than $100,000 in the five years preceding his bankruptcy also weighed against him.

Analysis: This was a fairly easy decision. Surplus income of any kind is typically enough to defeat a request to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

In re Kinney (Northern District of Iowa)

  • Held: Debtor’s cosigning of niece’s student loans, where debtor receives no educational benefit from these loans, weighs against prohibiting discharge for debtor, so long as debtor can otherwise satisfy the Brunner test.

Analysis: this decision makes a nuanced distinction between guarantying another’s student loans and obtaining student loans for one’s own benefit.

In re Metz (Kansas)

  • Amount of Loan: $67,277
  • Held: 59 year old single debtor who filed bankruptcy under Chapter 13 was entitled to partial relief under the Brunner test where, although she had an income of $43,000, she could not make minimum monthly payments of $564 while maintaining a minimum standard of living, had few if any prospects of earning a higher salary, and would have been required to pay to work until she was 84 to pay the entire debt.

Analysis: like other cases, the age and low relative income of the debtor entitled her to obtain relief from her student loans.

In re Menefee (Eastern District of VA)

  • Held: debtor failed to satisfy any prong of Brunner test where she failed to provide any evidence as to her current income and expenses or the amount of her student loan payment, and thus did not establish that she could not maintain a minimum standard of living.

Analysis: this case raises the question of debtor’s good faith in attempting to obtain student loan relief. Debtors bear the burden of establishing the right to a discharge in bankruptcy for student loans.

In re Pierson (Northern District of Ohio)

  • Held: 1) debtor could satisfy first prong of Brunner test notwithstanding in the IBR repayment program at a zero monthly payment requirement. 2) Debtor met second prong of Brunner test where debtor struggles with learning disabilities and bi-polar manic-depressive disorder and thus had limited future earning potential. 3) Debtor could satisfy third prong of Brunner test where he utilized administrative assistance such as requesting forbearance and did not seek discharge until 20 years after his education. Discharge granted.

Analysis: this case would provide the greatest hope for those who would seek to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. This debtor overcame two of the greatest hurdles facing such debtors: participating in an income based repayment program and seeking forbearance and deferment instead of outright making payments. This court certainly focused on the debtor’s long term mental health struggles.

 In re Richardson (Southern District of Georgia)

  • Held: debtor fails first prong of Brunner test where creditor shows that debtor could maintain minimal standard of living by limiting his retirement plan payroll deductions.

Analysis: voluntary deduction for retirement plans frequently interfere with a debtor’s efforts to discharge student loans or otherwise obtain bankruptcy relief. Courts frequently view such deductions as a debtor paying themselves before paying creditors. On the other hand, if a debtor can’t possibly save for retirement because he owes exorbitant student loans, then why is that not an undue hardship?

Conclusion: as much as we would like for bankruptcy courts to take up the mantle of addressing the huge social problem imposed by ruinous student loan debt, it appears almost certain that the final word must be made by Congress. However, if an enterprising attorney were to bring this matter to the Supreme Court who would articulate a standard that is less rigid than the Brunner Test, as traditionally applied by bankruptcy courts, that could open doors for huge change in the world of student loans and bankruptcy.

This article was contributed by Ronald J. Drescher. He can be reached at www.drescherlaw.com or 410.484.9000.

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