STUDENT LOANS: The Shifting Grounds for Relief

STUDENT LOANS: The Shifting Grounds for Relief

In Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) 504 US 555, 575-578, a very conservative jurist, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote the following:

   “To permit Congress to convert the undifferentiated public interest in executive officers’ compliance with the law into an “individual right” vindicable in the courts is to permit Congress to transfer from the President to the courts the Chief Executive’s most important constitutional duty, to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” Art. II, § 3. It would enable the courts, with the permission of Congress, “to assume a position of authority over the governmental acts of another and co-equal department,” Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U. S., at 489, and to become” ‘virtually continuing monitors of the wisdom and soundness of Executive action.’ “

This was another way of saying that there are cases in which the court should not get involved, such as those involving the specific statutory actions of a co-equal branch of government (i.e., “non-justiciable” cases).

Consequently, even when Congress passes a law that has a public benefit, it does not automatically grant citizens a “private right of action” to block that law. Any citizen who disliked any law could ask the courts to prevent it from going into effect, which would lead to chaos.

The student loan forgiveness program announced by President Biden is on hold. And it may be an example of what Justice Scalia warned of in Lujan. The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments regarding the loan forgiveness program in a few weeks. (“Supreme Court Agrees to Decide on Biden’s Stalled Student Loan Forgiveness Plan, “Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2022). The arguments against the program, based on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal decision, and another decision in Texas, raise the specter of placing the Supreme Court in the position of deciding on the appropriateness of day to day, or administrative actions by both Congress and the President.

In other words, the current student loan case invites the courts to get involved in non-justiciable cases. Albert, Lee A., “Justiciability and Theories of Judicial Review: A Remote Relationship,” 50 So. Cal. Law Review 1139, 1165-1166 (1977)

Pres. Biden and Education Sec’y Cardona base the program on the 2003 HEROES Act, which authorizes the Secretary to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs” if the Secretary “deems” such waivers or modifications “necessary to ensure” at least one of several enumerated purposes, including that borrowers are “not placed in a worse position financially” because of a national emergency. 20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1), (2)(A).”

The “national emergency” cited by Pres. Biden and Sec’y Cardona was the COVID pandemic, which began in 2020, and is far from over. “Tripledemic Update: RSV, Covid And Flu,” Forbes, December 13, 2022.

In the 8th circuit case, the state of Missouri claimed that it would be harmed by receiving less repayment revenue, should be loan forgiveness program go into effect. State of Nebraska, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., et al., Case No. Case No. 22-3179.

This reasoning is problematic because: 1) No loans have been forgiven, so no money has been lost; 2) research shows that when borrowers are released from paycheck to paycheck jobs as a result of debt relief, those borrowers find better paying jobs, which would cause them to pay more in taxes to the state (Harvard Business School/Working Knowledge, “Forgiving Student Loan Debt Leads to Better Jobs, Stronger Consumers,” May 22, 2019); 3) the government has several different laws upon which they can rely for student loan relief [e.g., Higher Education Act (“HEA”), beginning at 20 US Code Sec. 1082; the Federal Family Education Loan Program, beginning at 20 USC 1071; the Federal Claims Collection Act, found beginning at 31 USC Sec. 3701, the Direct Loan Program of Title IV of the HEA, and federal regulations, such as 31 CFR 30.70 and 31 CFR 902.1 (a); see Open Letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, September 14, 2020]. For example, the HEA states that the Secretary of Education has the power “enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption.” 20 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(6) p. 3 (emphasis added);

And 4) striking down the program is exactly the type of mischief that Justice Scalia warned against in Lujan, as stated above.

Finally, if the quibble is with the HEROES Act as a basis for the program, shouldn’t the Supreme Court defer to the Executive, based on this undisputed alternative authority? Or, simply require the President to resubmit the program, citing to his alternative statutory authority rather than the HEROES Act, instead of gutting the program?

We may have an answer in June 2023.

 

THIS POST DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE; PLEASE CONSULT AN ATTORNEY

 

IN TRUSTS WE TRUST: Comments Protect the Loan

IN TRUSTS WE TRUST: Comments Protect the Loan

When representing clients, attorneys rely on the words of the law (a “statute”) and ask the court to implement the plain, obvious meaning of its words.
When it comes to federal statutes, however, it is easy to overlook the “comments” by Congressional committees that draft the statutes, or the agencies which implement them. Such comments can be critical in court.
For example, a recent unanimous Court of Appeal used a statute’s agency staff comments to protect a consumer from a deceitful lender.
In Gilliam v. Levine, Case No. 18-56373 (9th Circuit, 2020), the court recounts that the borrower obtained a loan as trustee for a family trust. The purpose of the loan was to make home repairs. The home itself was the sole asset of the trust. Another family member, who occupied the home, was the trust beneficiary.
The borrower later discovered that the due date for the final loan payment was 1 year earlier than she had been led to believe. The borrower was alarmed, and sued to cancel (rescind) the loan under federal law, Truth in Lending Act (TILA), 15 U.S.C. § 1601, et seq., and the Real Estate Settlement Practices Act (RESPA), 12 U.S.C. § 2601. The borrower also asserted a claim under California’s Fair Lending Law [Rosenthal Act], 1788.1(b) of California’s Rosenthal Act, California Civil Code §§ 1788.1(b).  
The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, because, according to that judge, the loan went to the trust, not to a person, and hence was not a consumer loan.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, noting the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Official Staff Commentary to Regulation Z (mortgage loans), which states that “[c]redit extended for consumer purposes to certain trusts is considered to be credit extended to a natural person rather than credit extended to an organization.” 12 C.F.R. pt.1026, Supp. 1, § 1026.3 Comment 3(a)-10. (And under California law, the trustee, not the trust, holds title to trust property – – Author)
The “certain trusts,” which fall under the rubric of “natural persons,” included the trust in this case, which was formed for tax or estate planning purposes [which benefit people]. The trust in question was “primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.” 15 U.S.C. § 1602(i). The borrower was the aunt (as Trustee); the niece was the beneficiary; and the trust property was a private home. As a result, the loan was a “consumer credit transaction,” which was subject to the Fair Lending Laws.
And the Comment makes the point: Look to the substance of the transaction. Here it was to benefit a consumer, not a company. 12 C.F.R. pt. 1026, Supp. 1, and § 1026.3 Comment 3(a)-10.i. Because this was a consumer loan, the Trustee had the right to rescind this deceptive loan.
WARNING: THIS POST DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE; PLEASE CONSULT AN ATTORNEY

BANKRUPTCY LAW: The Curious Case of Alex Jones & InfoWars

BANKRUPTCY LAW: The Curious Case of Alex Jones & InfoWars

Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding that liquidates (eliminates) the unsecured debts of the debtor (debts not backed by collateral). It is important to note, however, that the debtor may have a particular legal status, and that legal status is what determines which bankruptcy is used, or which entity is able to cancel its debt.

For example, if a corporation files for bankruptcy, and is properly formed and documented, then it may file for bankruptcy without the necessity of its owners also filing for bankruptcy. And the corporation’s unsecured debts may be eliminated or re-structured, depending on the particular type of relief applied for.

However, if both the corporation and the individual are equally liable on the debt, such as through a personal guarantee by the owner, then the filing of a bankruptcy petition for the corporation will not insulate the individual. The individual would also need to separately file for bankruptcy protection, if that is the type of relief sought.

The case of Alex Jones is a illustrative. Mr. Jones, through his media outlet, InfoWars, has become infamous for making the false claim that the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was some type of staged or phony incident. Several parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary sued Mr. Jones and InfoWars for defamation, on the theory that by maintaining such a claim, Mr. Jones apparently implied that the grieving parents were lying about the deaths of their children.

For whatever reason, Mr. Jones did not contest the lawsuit, choosing instead to allow the court to take a default against him. Such an action, however, did not prevent the court from continuing its proceedings against Mr. Jones and his company or companies.

The court would eventually enter judgments for large sums of money in favor of the parents, both against Mr. Jones, and against some or all of his companies, including Infowars.

See, for example, cases collected by the First Amendment Watch at NYU: https://firstamendmentwatch.org/deep-dive/alex-jones-infowars-and-the-sandy-hook-defamation-suits/

Mr. Jones responded to being hit with these large judgments by filing a bankruptcy petition for Infowars. Bankruptcy of course means that no further action collection against the debtor’s personal unsecured debts, unless the debts (in Jones’s case, the judgments) relates to fraud, moral turpitude, or is otherwise considered non-dischargeable.

Setting aside the question of whether the judgments for defamation are connected to moral turpitude, where these false statements relate to the deaths of the plaintiff’s children, there appears to be a disconnect between the judgments and the bankruptcy filing by Mr. Jones. He declared bankruptcy for Infowars, but apparently not for himself personally. The judgments were against him personally, as well as against Infowars and other entities. In other words, if there is a judgment against Infowars, bankruptcy might have the effect of making the judgment uncollectible against Infowars, but the judgment against Jones himself would be unaffected.

A bankruptcy petition for Infowars is not the same as a bankruptcy for Alex Jones, because the individual and the company are separate, assuming that the company is created in a proper, recognized corporate form, such as a Corporation, LLC, or other distinct legal entity.

Mr. Jones cannot protect himself personally by filing a bankruptcy for Infowars. He would have to file bankruptcy for himself as well. It may be that he did not want to file bankruptcy for himself, and believed that somehow corporate bankruptcy would protect his personal fortune.This is not the case.

Thus, when an individual and corporation are both fully liable on the debt, corporate bankruptcy will not protect the individual. This occurs, for example, where an individual personally guarantees the debt of a company, or the corporation and the individual are jointly liable.

So apparently here in the case of Infowars, Infowars can be pursued for the Judgment, but in the absence of Infowars, Mr. Jones may also be pursued, unless he files for personal bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court accepts the filing as appropriate, and not involving moral turpitude, or affected by some other disqualifying factor.

THIS POST DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE, AND READING IT DOES NOT CREATE AN ATTORNEY CLIENT RELATIONSHIP. PLEASE CONSULT DIRECTLY WITH AN ATTORNEY FOR ANY LEGAL ADVICE!!

 

 

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Tyler Merbler at https://flickr.com/photos/37527185@N05/9072625782 (archive). It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

SCOTUS: Violating Bankruptcy Discharge Serves Up Creditor for Contempt

SCOTUS: Violating Bankruptcy Discharge Serves Up Creditor for Contempt

The primary purpose of the bankruptcy stay [11 USC Sec. 362] is to protect the debtor. (In re Fuel Oil Supply and Terminaling, Inc., 30 BR 360, 362 (Bankr.N.D.Tex.1983), cited in In re Globe Investment & Loan Co., Inc., 867 F.2d 556 (1989)). By stopping all collection actions against the debtor, the bankruptcy stay acts 1) as an injunction to preserve the estate, and 2) to prevent the creditors from trying to go around the bankruptcy process to collect.
Once the debtor receive the discharge (11 USC Sec. 727), creditors are no longer able to collect the discharged debts. A creditor who, despite the discharge, seeks to collect a pre-bankruptcy debt, runs the risk of a contempt citation and punishment by the federal court.
And so it was held recently by the US Supreme Court which held that a business dispute with the debtor, that had begun prior to the debtor’s filing for bankruptcy, was discharged by the bankruptcy, and no further collection activity would be allowed.
Writing for a unanimous US Supreme Court, Associate Justice Breyer opined that the business creditors, who had initiated the lawsuit against the debtor (Mr. Taggart) had no reasonable basis to believe that the bankruptcy stay, and the subsequent discharge would not act to bar the continued litigation against the debtor. The debt was considered wiped away, and the creditors actions, seen objectively, were not only impermissible, but gave rise to contempt sanctions:
“Under the fair ground of doubt standard, civil contempt therefore may be appropriate when the creditor violates a discharge order based on an objectively unreasonable understanding of the discharge order or the statutes that govern its scope.”
Taggart v. Lorenzen, ___ U.S. ___, 139 S.Ct. 1795, 1801, 204 L.Ed.2d 129 (2019).
The facts showed that the creditors had a working knowledge of the effects of bankruptcy law, and objectively should have realized that the pre-bankruptcy debt was no longer collectible. Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the matter back to the 9th Circuit, to impose appropriate sanctions:
“We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in applying a subjective standard for civil contempt. Based on the traditional principles that govern civil contempt, the proper standard is an objective one. A court may hold a creditor in civil contempt for violating a discharge order where there is not a “fair ground of doubt” as to whether the creditor’s conduct might be lawful under the discharge order.”
The Takeaway: Creditors Who Know that a Debtor has Filed for Bankruptcy Should Take No Action Against the Discharged Debtor, without First Having a Very Detailed, Careful Conversation with an Attorney, Lest Those Creditors End Up Held in Contempt!!

BANKRUPTCY LAW (Importance of Automatic Stay Part 2)

BANKRUPTCY LAW (Importance of Automatic Stay Part 2)

BANKRUPTCY LAW (Importance of Automatic Stay); When a debtor files for bankruptcy, 11 USC Section 362(a)(1) automatically stays any other judicial proceeding involving the debtor. The automatic stay “plays a vital role in bankruptcy. The automatic stay aids the debtor in getting a financial fresh start. The automatic stay is “one of the fundamental debtor protections provided by the bankruptcy laws.” The stay promotes stability of the bankruptcy estate for both the debtor and creditors. In re Schwartz, 954 F.2d 569, 571 (9th Cir.1992), cited in FAR OUT PRODUCTIONS, INC. v. OSKAR, 247 F.3d 986, 994-995 (2001)

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