Tax Clinic Student Argues Case Before US Court of Appeals

Tax Clinic Student Argues Case Before US Court of Appeals

In December, Amy Feinberg ’18 became the second Federal Tax Clinic student to have the exhilarating experience of arguing an appeal in circuit court since the Clinic opened at Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in 2015.

Clinical Professor of Law Keith Fogg, who directs the Federal Tax Clinic, notes that many attorneys can be practicing for 10 or more years before they get the kind of experience that Feinberg has gotten while taking the Clinic.

Other students  have had the opportunity to file amicus briefs and help prepare appeals for court.  All students work directly with clients and carry a docket of cases. And almost all have the opportunity to negotiate directly with the IRS and state tax authorities – experiences that many lawyers seldom get, even if they are tax attorneys.

“The opportunity to appear in the circuit courts, file amicus briefs, and to promote law change through policy advocacy if necessary is an outgrowth of a strategy that the Federal Tax Clinic has developed to assist taxpayers, many of whom are low income, who have missed the deadline to file a petition in the United States Tax Court by one or more days because of misleading information or notices sent by the IRS, “ Fogg says.

Learn more about Feinberg’s experience and the work of the Federal Tax Clinic on this issue here.

Department of Education Illegally Slashes Debt Relief for Corinthian Borrowers

Martin was talked into WyoTech’s automotive technology program instead of community college. But the program was a complete fraud – he rarely touched a car while there, and the great jobs promised to him were unavailable. The Department of Education acknowledged that Martin was lied to and misled, and he applied to have his federal student loans from WyoTech discharged. Still, the Department has seized two years of Martin’s tax refunds and garnished his wages to pay back his federal loans from this fraudulent institution.

This isn’t just wrong, it’s illegal. By announcing that it was illegally attempting to slash the relief available to borrowers, the Department is engaging in the same bait and switch tactics as Corinthian—which owned Heald, Everest, and Wyotech.

That’s why this week, Martin and two other named plaintiffs filed a filed a nation-wide class action against the Department of Education for illegally and unfairly denying complete relief to tens of thousands of former Corinthian students who the Department already decided are entitled to have their loans discharged and their payments refunded.

The borrowers are represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Housing and Economic Rights Advocates of Oakland, California.

The three named plaintiffs in this suit are just three of many thousands of people who have experienced the systematic exploitation and fraud that for-profit colleges have engaged in –fraud that is enabled by taxpayer funds and the Department of Education.

  • Martin Calvillo Manriquez barely had an opportunity to touch cars or car parts while he was enrolled in his automotive program. The school didn’t have tools or certified instructors. Martin has never had a job related to auto repair. His debt from Corinthian is the only line on his credit report.
  • Rthwan Dobashi owes more than $20,000 for the same program. He has also never worked in the field. He is married, has two children, and is expecting a third. In early 2016, he found out from the attorney general that he was eligible to have his debts from WyoTech cancelled, and he applied. He also told one of his friends from school, and his friend applied, too. His friend’s loans were discharged almost a year ago, while Rthwan still hasn’t heard anything from the Department.
  • Jamal Cornelius attended the Information Technology-Emphasis in Network Security program at Heald College, and borrowed more than $25,000. He has been waiting more than fourteen months for any response to his application for relief.

All three borrowers, and all class members, are entitled to relief pursuant to the Department’s Corinthian Job Placement Rate Rule, which it has established through countless public statements, previous discharges, and direct notice to tens of thousands of covered individuals.

After we filed this case, the Department announced that it would slash the loan cancellation for defrauded borrowers who attended schools owned by Corinthian Colleges – departing from the established rule and illegally applying changes retroactively. It is completely unlawful for the Department to go back on its word in this way.

These students were already lied to by Corinthian. Now they have been lied to by the federal government, too.

Tax Lawyer from India Describes Her LSC Federal Tax Clinic Experience

Varsha Bhattacharya L.L.M. ’18  is a tax lawyer hailing from India who previously dealt primarily with corporate clients and is now getting an L.L.M. degree at Harvard Law. As a student  in LSC’s Federal Tax Clinic, she not only needed to learn an entirely new body of tax law and administrative proceedings, she also found herself working with low-income individuals rather than corporations.   As she notes:  “A lot about getting the work right lies in caring about the client. The moment I call a client, hear their story, and feel a direct connection with them, as their representative I feel a greater responsibility to give them the best chance in their cases.”  Learn more

Kaplan Has Been Exploiting Veterans

For-profit colleges have exploited the promise of higher education by deceiving tens of thousands of students seeking a better life. One of the groups the for-profit industry has particularly targeted are veterans and servicemembers.

That is why the Project on Predatory Lending represented the Veterans Education Success organization to prepare a new report outlining the predatory actions of one for-profit institution, Kaplan Colleges and University, against veterans and servicemembers.

VES collected complaints from nearly 100 veterans who attended Kaplan-owned programs. Their complaints include things like:

  • Raising the costs on veterans once they enroll and failing to inform them of additional fees;
  • Misleading veterans about their military benefits covering the tuition costs, resulting in unexpected and burdensome debt; and
  • Borrowing money on behalf of veterans without their consent.

Unlike the for-profits colleges that are forced to shut down when their fraudulent behavior is exposed, Kaplan is still an active and functioning college. In fact, Kaplan University was just purchased by Purdue, a public university in Indiana, to conduct its online programs. And the Department of Education just approved this transaction, which will remove some of the protections for borrowers and taxpayers that apply only to for-profit schools not conducting business under the auspices of public entities.

We hope you will read the full report to understand the extent of the predatory behavior by Kaplan.

Click here to read the report.

Military servicemembers and veterans deserve our respect and gratitude. And, like all students, they deserve to seek higher education without facing fraudulent and unscrupulous companies trying to extract federal funds. Kaplan’s actions run directly counter to that. It’s time for the government to step in to help, or they too will have failed in their duty to support veterans who have sacrificed so much for us all.

Negotiated Rulemaking Reconvenes in Washington D.C. for Act Two of Regulatory Theater

This week, in a conference room in Washington D.C., various stakeholders of the federal student aid programs will meet to discuss whether there should be any check on the cost and value of vocational training programs that receive public money.  The negotiated rulemaking committee formed by these various stakeholders, and representatives of the Department of Education, will meet several more times before the for-profit college industry will get to write the “gainful employment” rule that will pose the least difficulty to its business model early next year.

Act one of a similar regulatory theater took place last month, when the Department convened a negotiated rulemaking on the topic of borrower defense, the process by which student borrowers who have been cheated by their schools can seek loan cancellation.  This rulemaking will likely displace the borrower defense rule enacted just last year, which the Trump administration delayed after taking office.

As someone who represented the legal aid constituency in the most recent negotiated rulemakings on gainful employment and borrower defense, I understand why these two regulations are the focus of the Department’s regulatory agenda.  If allowed to operate, both borrower defense and gainful employment would bring a measure of accountability to an industry that continues to do seemingly everything imaginable to discredit itself.

As a negotiator on the 2013 gainful employment rulemaking, I tried unsuccessfully to convince the Department that loan cancellation is a necessary component of any gainful employment regulation.  It seems obvious that students who borrow to attend a program that purports to provide skills necessary for a vocation, but which on the whole fails, have been cheated.  And the Department plays a role. It is supposed to act as a gatekeeper. No matter how many fine print disclaimers the Department may make, disavowing any role in assessing the quality of program a borrower decides to attend, the ability of a student to borrower loans from the government to pay for education sends a strong signal that the program must be a good one.  Why else would the government be willing to lend money?

In 2013, on behalf of the legal aid community, I proposed that the Department recognize gainful employment metrics as the basis for an affirmative borrower defense by students who attended failing programs.  In response, the Department proposed to amend the borrower defense regulation—not the subject of the rulemaking—to specify that gainful employment metrics could NOT form the basis of borrower defense.  Then it went a step further, and proposed eliminating the borrower defense regulation altogether.  We were able to defeat this proposal, but the final rules on gainful employment did not contain any provision for loan cancellation for students who attended programs that by the Department’s own definition provided more debt burden than value.  Although the Department recognized “the desire to ease the debt burden of students,” the “issue requires further consideration” and therefore the Department “will continue to explore ways to provide debt relief to students in future regulations.”

This was in October 2014, almost two years after the Department had requested information from Corinthian Colleges, Inc. regarding its placement rate data, and several months after the Department placed the company on heightened cash monitoring, restricting its ability to draw down federal student aid.  Within six months, before the gainful employment rules would even go into effect, the Department had fined Corinthian for misleading students, precipitating the school’s closure and bankruptcy.

Later in 2015, the Department convened the first borrower defense rulemaking because of a “building debt activism movement.” Every student loan contract since the mid-1990s has, in line with guidance from the Federal Trade Commission and Congress, provided for loan cancellation upon a showing that the loan was the product of school misconduct. The Department has said on multiple occasions that it was caught off guard by borrower defense, as it had only received a handful of such claims in the decades prior to 2015.  But that year alone, it would receive tens of thousands of applications.  The first tide of applications came from students organized by the Debt Collective, an organization that stepped into the void between rights and remedies for borrowers.  The Department didn’t have any process or even a form for borrowers to assert this contractual right until the Debt Collective created one.

Thirty thousand people have gotten justice in the form of loan cancellation because of borrower defense.  There are close to 100,000 applications pending.  The majority of these claims have been from students of Corinthian Colleges. Second behind Corinthian is ITT, a school that declared bankruptcy in 2016.  Not coincidentally, close to 80% of ITT’s programs would not have passed the gainful employment regulations.

The writing was on the wall when the Department tried to stealthily remove the borrower defense regulations in 2013.  And it is no less clear today than it was then that there is a massive problem with the federal student aid program.  This program was intended to alleviate rather than reify, or worsen, the wealth gap in our country.  Those looking to obtain the basic skills and credentials that the labor market now requires for entry-level positions in trades should not have to take on massive amounts of debt that they will never be able to repay, even under the best-case employment scenario.  And the Department should not enable this zero-sum game between students and an industry that takes taxpayer dollars as revenue and creates a near dollar-for-dollar wake of individual debt.

Thankfully, despite the current climate, I see no indication that this genie will ever go back into the bottle.  Even the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill introduced in Congress last week, in all of its meanness, did not go so far as to take away the right of students cheated by for-profit schools to seek loan cancellation.  The longer this industry survives, the more debt it creates without returning any value to society, the closer we come to a reckoning.  No matter what happens this week in a conference room in Washington D.C.