postings by Dalié Jiménez

Attorney Market for Discharging Student Loans

posted by Dalié Jiménez

BeatSLs

On Friday, Tara Siegel Bernard reported in the New York Times that some bankruptcy judges think that the onerous Brunner standard for discharging student loans should change. Commenting on the article, reader "alma" writes:

As someone who recently filed for bankruptcy and has more than $100,000 in student loan debt, I can tell you why I did not try to get relief from student loans: I did not know it was an option. My lawyer simply told me that it was not possible to have student loans discharged. This article is the first I have even heard there was any method to do so ....

From the rest of the comments, this poster is not alone. Some of this may be explained by clients misunderstanding what's said (where the attorney means they don't think that this particular client will succeed in obtaining a discharge). But especially pre-2005 when the law was murkier, I do wonder about the level of advice given to filers.

Attempting to discharge student loans costs extra money, something bankruptcy clients are unlikely to have. Given the low numbers of attempts, it's unlikely any given bankruptcy attorney has any experience filing such a case. Doing it is no simple matter either; it's literally a federal case. I've only found one book out there detailing how to file an adversary proceeding to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. 

My own limited experience is that this is (unsurprisingly) quite hard. As part of a larger study, Jim GreinerLois Lupica, a couple of dozen students, and I have been working to create a DIY guide to a no-asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy guide, complete with a module on representing yourself through an adversary proceeding to discharge student loans. We just posted a paper on the philosophy behind our materials (and why we include cartoons like the one above). If we succeed, we hope that the materials we create will be useful to attorneys as well as pro se individuals. But there has to be a market before attorneys will use them.

What say you, Credit Slips readers, are bankruptcy attorneys offering student loan discharge services? Do clients want them? Can they afford them?

The cartoon credit goes to Hallie Pope. Hallie is the creator of "Blob" and other cartoons featured in the self-help materials in the Financial Distress Research Study.

Big Win for CFPB on Debt Collection

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Yesterday, Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia issued a very cogent 70-page opinion in the case of the CFPB v. Frederick Hanna & Associates, a large collection law firm with offices in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. The opinion denies Hanna's motion to dismiss in its entirety, and almost completely agrees with the CFPB's legal theory. In doing so, the opinion deals a serious blow to the collection law firm business model.

A brief recap of the case if you haven't been following. A year ago, the CFPB filed suit against the Hanna law firm essentially attacking the big collection law firm business model. Among other things, the CFPB alleged that the firm operated "less like a law firm than a factory" and that attorneys were not "meaningfully involved" in the collection lawsuits they filed. As an example, the CFPB alleged that one attorney in the Hanna firm signed about 138,000 lawsuits between 2009-10. That's 189 lawsuits per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

The second CFPB claim was that in filing most of its lawsuits on behalf of debt buyers, the law firm "knew or should have known that many of the[] affidavits [they filed] were executed by persons who lacked personal knowledge of the facts." The Bureau sued under both the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) for what it alleges were false or misleading and unfair acts and practices.

The opinion allows the Bureau to proceed on all of these claims. Specifically, Judge Totenberg (who incidentally, is Nina Totenberg's sister) found that the Bureau could regulate collection attorneys under the CFPA (the first time any court considered this issue), that the "meaningful involvement doctrine" extends to activities in litigation, and that the Hanna firm might be liable for filing affidavits given to it by its clients if the CFPB can prove its allegations.

The last two points are huge because it means that collection attorneys will have to spend some time reviewing the collection cases they file. (How much time and what constitutes enough "involvement" is up in the air). Nonetheless, this completely up-ends the business model of at least some collection law firms. As Joann Needleman has pointed out at InsideARM, an interlocutory appeal is unlikely to succeed here, so look for the CFPB to file more cases (or enter into consent decrees) with more law firms.

Stale Debts in Bankruptcy

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Should liability under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) lie against a creditor who submits a proof of claim past the statute of limitations in a consumer bankruptcy case?

That is the question the Supreme Court declined to review recently in LVNV Funding, LLC v. Crawford. In Crawford, the Eleventh Circuit applied the "least sophisticated consumer" standard to find liability for the debt buyer when it submitted a proof of claim in 2008 for a debt that was out of statute as of 2004. Other courts have held differently. In fact, just last month, district courts in Indiana and Pennsylvania dismissed FDCPA suits against debt buyers under essentially the same facts as Crawford. Other courts, including the Second Circuit, have seemingly held that FDCPA liability can never lie in a bankruptcy case.

Putting the merits of applying the FDCPA in a bankruptcy case aside, it seems to me that in this specific instance potential liability under the Act could serve very useful functions: namely efficiency and cost savings.

Continue reading "Stale Debts in Bankruptcy" »

Are Some Banks Using Credit Reports to Help Collect Discharged Debts?

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Last week, Adam pointed us to a NYT's story on "zombie debt" after bankruptcy. I did a bit more research into the story because I had a hard time understanding the problem from the article.

There are a few lawsuits that have been filed about this (I found ones against GE Capital/Synchrony, Bank of America/FIA Card Svcs, Citigroup, and Chase). The GE complaint alleges that the banks have a systematic practice of "selling and attempting to collect discharged debts and ... failing to update and correct credit information to credit reporting agencies to show that such debts are no longer due and owing because they have been discharged in bankruptcy." You can download the complaint in the GE case here.

More specifically, the allegations are that after a discharge, some creditors do not update their tradelines to a status of "in bankruptcy" and instead leave them as "charged-off." The credit report of a person in this situation would then say they have filed bankruptcy and obtained a discharge but you could not tell whether any individual debt has been discharged in that bankruptcy. The (non-binding) credit bureau reporting guidelines (METRO 2) specify that creditors should report accounts as "included in bankruptcy" once they receive a notice of discharge.

The complaint characterizes GE's argument as being that the FCRA does not require it to make this change, perhaps especially in particular after a debt has been sold and they no longer have an interest in it. (GE has not filed an answer yet, but it seems like this is one argument they might make from reading their other filings). That seems to me to be a wrong interpretation of the FCRA and the FTC's Furnisher Rule. It should also be a violation of the discharge injunction. As Judge Drain put it in an opinion denying a motion to compel arbitration:

One could argue that the reporting of a discharged debt as still outstanding when the credit report also shows that the debtor has been in bankruptcy is even a worse result, indicating to those who are considering providing credit in the future that the debtor has fallen into the category of the dishonest debtor who did not receive a discharge.

I am told that NPR's On Point will be doing a segment on this on Thursday at 10AM EST with one of the attorneys filing these cases. You can listen to the podcast here.

Note: post has been edited to correct the timing of the NPR program and to add the link to the podcast.

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

posted by Dalié Jiménez

That's the name of a new book by Jake Halpern coming out in October. The New York Times has an excerpt on their site. If the excerpt is anything like the book, it's going to be gripping.

What's even cooler is that someone actually created a video game based on the book. Or at least on the debt collector business part of the book. You can play as a debtor or a debt collector and see the story through. It's web-based image-and-text but really well done (just some minor innacuracies).

 

CFPB: Let Consumers Make Their Complaints Public; All Rejoice

posted by Dalié Jiménez

CFPBcomplaintsbyproductThis week the CFPB announced it's seeking public comments on a proposed policy that would allow consumers who file a complaint with the agency to share all of the (non-personally identifying) details of that complaint with the public as part of its Consumer Complaint Database. (Right now the database only identifies the financial product complained about, name of the company, and a category identifying the topic of the complaint).

As a researcher, I am beyond thrilled at the possibility of being able to drill down into the details of complaints. This might allow us to go even further than the CFPB or Ian Ayres and others did last year in analyzing the complaint database. 

Good players in the consumer finance space should be thrilled too: more data will allow us to really separate those who are doing right by consumers from those who aren't. It would allow the public or researchers to decide for themselves whether someone was making a mountain out of a molehill or if was identifying a real problem in their complaint. The fact that we currently don't have transparecy into complaints is a common (and justified) complaint by the debt collection industry. The CFPB is also proposing to make public the institution's response to the complaint (at their option). Anyone could then evaluate whether they think particular industries/institutions are responding appropriately to complaints. 

Continue reading "CFPB: Let Consumers Make Their Complaints Public; All Rejoice" »

General Mills: About-Face

posted by Dalié Jiménez

General Mills decided to reverse direction on its recent change to its terms of service purporting to mandate arbitration and ban class actions for anyone who 'liked' them (among other things). Perhaps they were threatened by Adam Levitin's counter-proposal, or maybe it was the widespread outraged reaction on Twitter and all manner of social media. 

Hurray for consumer advocates! They not only got a complete pivot, but they also got an apology (of sorts: "We're sorry we even started down this path"). The way the company characterizes what happens though, is telling:

We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction. Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim. They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.  

As others have pointed out, whether or not the language of the previous agreement would've been enforceable, it did purport to do what the media reported. But the more interesting recharacterization in their post is this notion that "arbitration clauses don't cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim" which they also mentioned in their previous blog post explaining the changes.

The General is being quite disengenous by claiming that waiving the right to file a class action does not mean consumers would've given up valid legal claims. The curious part is that there's no mention of the class action waiver in either of its blog posts about the terms or even in the New York Times article breaking the story (HT to Daniel Fisher over at Forbes for pointing this out).

But that's where the meat of the story is. And it's the most important victory for consumers to come out of all of this outrage. Now if we could get some more outrage for financial products class action waivers ... 

Suffolk/NCLC Student Loans Symposium

posted by Dalié Jiménez

I had the pleasure of participating in this weekend's very successful Research Symposium on Student Loans organized by Kathleen Engel of Suffolk Law School and Deanne Loonin of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) (NCLC, by the way, is looking to hire three attorneys!). In this post I want to mention some of the highlights.

Elizabeth Warren at Suffolk LawThe symposium was not your typical academic conference. Although almost 20 papers were presented during the two days, a number of participants were from industry and nonprofits. Participants also heard from an NCLC client who had actually dealt with student loan issues and come out the other side. This was, as one speaker mentioned, the conference some of us had been waiting for. 

The speakers also included former Slips regular and now senior Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (pictured at the event). The Senator focused her remarks on her proposal to allow refinancing of student loans (federal and private) at the interest rates Congress approved last summer (3.86% for undergraduate loans and 5.41% for grad unsubsidized loans). She noted that this is just a small step on the road to fixing the problems with the student loan system but since Congress not too long voted to lower future students' interest rates agreeing that they were too high she is hoping this proposal might actually have some political legs.  

Continue reading "Suffolk/NCLC Student Loans Symposium" »

Debt Collection Complaints and Regulation: Last Chance to Comment on ANPR

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Today is your last chance to comment on the CFPB's Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Regulation F, regarding debt collection.  I had the pleasure of working with Pat McCoy on a joint comment to the ANPR.  Our comment addresses documentation and information requirements for collectors, chain of title issues, and debt repositories.

After reading two reports released yesterday I'm even more convinced that these are among the most critical issues.  The FTC announced their top 2013 complaints (debt collection still the top industry complained about) and US PIRG released a report on the more than 11,000 complaints the CFPB received on debt collection over a six month period.  The PIRG report in particular highlights just how important the integrity of the information and documentation passed from collector to collector is (and how badly this is working right now).  Most consumers were complaining that the debt was not theirs (25%), they were not given enough information to verify the debt (13%), or that the debt had already been paid (11%).  

This is exactly the underlying issue that we address in our ANPR comment: something is very wrong when a debt buyer only gets a spreadsheet with some information about the debt, gets no documents in connection with the debt, signs a contract where the seller doesn't stand behind the information sold (and sometimes specifically says amounts or interest may be wrong), and then attempts to collect on that debt. I've argued that this violates the FDCPA.  In our comment we try to propose some ways to fix this problem going forward.

I urge Credit Slips readers to send in your comments before the 11:59pm deadline.

CapitalOne Contract Not Just Creepy But Illegal?

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Shutterstock_144867838CapOne's taken a lot of flack today over its apparent desire to check what's in your wallet by visiting you at home and at work.  The LA Times story got even bigger when it made it to Twitter and  great (and lots of bad, see previous sentence) puns started rolling in.

The company answer seems to be that language from a security agreement for snowmobiles got "mixed in" with the credit card language (and no one over there is reading their 6-page contracts). They are now "considering creating two separate agreements given this language doesn’t apply to our general cardholder base."  

I wonder if that means that they'll also revisit the part of the credit card agreements that takes a security interest in anything you buy from Best Buy, Big Lots, Jordan's Furniture, Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman, or Saks?  (I should note, your clothes are only in danger if you have a Saks "retail" card; if your card is a Platinum or World card not only is your interest rate likely lower but it seems your stuff is also safe).

Continue reading "CapitalOne Contract Not Just Creepy But Illegal?" »

Debt Collection Industry Poised for Changes

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Like Pamela, I’m very delighted to join Credit Slips. As Bob mentioned in his kind introduction, I spent a year as a policy fellow at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. One of the most things I got to work on while I was there were the rules defining "large market participants" in the debt collection and credit reporting markets. After issuing final rules, the CFPB began to supervise these non-bank entities; marking the first time any federal regulator had the authority to do so. 

Recently, the Bureau published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on debt collection (comments are due by February 28). The ANPR marks the first time that a regulator will interpret the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a statute that has barely changed since its enactment in 1977. What's more, because of its UDAAP authority; the CFPB will be able to write rules defining unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices that apply to both collectors and creditors. I've written elsewhere about how the systemic problems in the collections ecosystem begin at the creditor, so this is exciting news. What might be surprising though is that the collections industry seems to share in this excitement.

Continue reading "Debt Collection Industry Poised for Changes" »

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