Predatory Lending/Consumer Protection Clinic

ITT Students’ $1.5 Billion Settlement Heard by Judge In Bankruptcy

Today, former ITT students proposed a $1.5 billion settlement claim in bankruptcy court that would cancel more than $500 million in debts. All participants in the case and members of the class have until April 24 to submit their views of the settlement with the court before it is heard for final approval on June 13.  This is good news for former ITT students, but there is still a long way to go.

ITT Tech systematically defrauded students. ITT lied to and misled students about financial aid and cost of attendance, job placement and salaries, the quality of equipment and experience of instructors, the employability of ITT graduates, ITT’s programmatic accreditation, the transferability of credits, and career placement assistance.

It would be simpler to list the things ITT didn’t mislead students about.

Data from 2014 show that on average, ITT graduates earn on average the same or less than high school graduates with no college education. Approximately one in five ITT students defaulted on their federal student loans within three years.

Now, a group of ITT students have reached a proposed a settlement with the bankruptcy estate that includes a $1.5 billion allowed claim. In addition to cancelling nearly $600 million in debts, the settlement would also return the $3 million that students paid directly to ITT after it declared bankruptcy. This landmark settlement shows that the only path forward is to cancel fraudulent and unenforceable debts created by predators like ITT.

The settlement is a good start, but there is still a long way to go to make things right for former ITT students.

More than 7,000 former ITT students have submitted borrower defense applications to the Department of Education to cancel their federal student loans. These loans – and the federal loans of all former ITT students, totaling nearly $4 billion – should be cancelled.  ITT’s estate has cancelled the student debts because of the school’s fraudulent actions, and it’s time for the Department of Education and all private holders of ITT debt to do the same.

As Paul Goodwin, a former ITT student, said: “I have still been struggling to pay back my student loans, which I should not even owe because of the way that ITT systematically lied to students. Getting more relief on temporary credit loans is great news for me and my family, but I am still waiting for the Department of Education to discharge my federal student loans.”

We will continue to fight for the Department of Education to meet its legal obligation to cancel these fraudulent student loans.

If you are a former student of ITT, click here to sign up for future updates.

Proposed Settlement to be Heard January 24

A year ago former ITT students filed a complaint against ITT and a class Proof of Claim in the ITT bankruptcy case. In this last year we have worked hard to fight on behalf of the Student Class, including urging the Trustee to stop collection on all debt owed directly to ITT.

Today we are happy to announce that a motion was filed asking the court for preliminary approval of a proposed settlement between the Student Class and the Trustee. The proposed settlement agreement would recognize a $1.5-billion-dollar claim against ITT by students who attended the school between 2006 and 2016, for widespread, systematic fraud and breach of contract. The Students’ allegations included ITT’s use of high-pressure sales tactics to get students to enroll and remain enrolled. It was also alleged that ITT deceived and misled students about financial aid options and costs of attendance, job placement and salary rates, the quality of equipment and experience of instructors, the desirability of ITT graduates by employers, ITT’s accreditation status, the transferability of credits, and career placement assistance.

Some Key Terms of the Agreement

  • All of the nearly $600 million in “temporary credits” — accounts the company claimed students owed directly to ITT — will be canceled. This settlement only cancels debts that were owed directly to ITT and does not affect private or federal student loans.
  • All of the almost $3 million students paid directly to ITT since ITT declared bankruptcy in September 2016 will be returned to students, and there will be accurate credit reporting showing that these accounts have been deleted or paid in full.
  • The Students’ Proofs of Claim will be allowed in the amount of $1.5 billion as unsecured claims. If at the end of the bankruptcy there is money in the estate to pay unsecured claims, the student class will receive a proportional share based on the size of the allowed claim. Any amount distributed to the student class will be divided among the entire student class, and the distribution must be approved by the court.
  • In exchange for the allowed claim, former ITT students give up their claims against the estate of ITT, and keep their rights to seek further relief from the Department of Education and private lenders.

The motion and the settlement agreement will go before the court for preliminary approval on January 24, 2018. If the court grants preliminary approval, there will be a period of time for student class members to review and comment on the agreement and also choose not to participate. After that, we will seek final approval of the settlement from the court.

In our view, the proposed settlement agreement is a victory for former students who were defrauded by ITT. However, we know that the student class still faces billions of dollars of federal and private student loans from ITT and we will continue fight for all ITT-related debt to be canceled.

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.

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.

Project on Predatory Student Lending’s Director of Litigation, Eileen Connor, selected for the 2017 “Rising Star” award from the National Consumer Law Center

The Project on Predatory Student Lending’s Director of Litigation, Eileen Connor, has been selected for the 2017 “Rising Star” award from the National Consumer Law Center for her significant contributions to consumer law. Eileen’s award comes as a result of her Second Circuit victory in the case Salazar v. King. Her clients were defrauded by the predatory practices of the now-defunct Wilfred Beauty Academy.

Wilfred, a for-profit chain of cosmetology and business trade schools, came under government investigation in the 1980s for the misuse of student aid funds and the falsification of loan applications. The result of the investigation was an overwhelming amount of evidence proving Wilfred’s fraud in certifying students’ eligibility for loans. In 1996, the Department of Education found that Wilfred’s fraudulent practices were widespread and recommended that all Wilfred students who were improperly enrolled receive a loan discharge, reimbursement for money they had paid, and a restoration of their credit. Despite its own recommendation, the Department continued to collect on these loans, including through involuntary collection methods such as seizing tax refunds and garnishing wages.

After the Department refused Eileen’s request that it suspend collections and notify all Wilfred borrowers that they may be eligible to discharge their loans, as it was required to do by law, Eileen filed this class action lawsuit in 2014. She challenged the Department’s refusal to meaningfully notify borrowers of discharge rights – rights that stem from the Department’s own failure to diligently oversee the predatory for-profit schools participating in the federal student loan program. The Second Circuit found that the Department’s refusal to notify borrowers was final and reviewable, and that judicial review was especially appropriate given the collection powers the Department exercised against the putative class members.

The Second Circuit’s ruling cracks open the door to relief for defrauded borrowers by showing that, in carrying out each and every function related to the federal student loan program, the Department must at least follow the law and its own regulations.

Eileen’s tenacious advocacy was carried out over more than three years, including before an administrative agency, a district court, and the Second Circuit. Salazar is an important and unfortunately rare case that begins to rein in the lawless and harmful approach that the Department of Education takes with respect to the rights of defrauded student loan borrowers. In short, the recognition is well-deserved. The Project on Predatory Student Lending congratulates Eileen on the award and thanks her for her tireless and inspirational leadership. We look forward to celebrating her advocacy at the National Consumer Law Center’s Consumer Rights Litigation Conference this week.

Former For-Profit College Students Ask Federal Court to Void Student Loan Debt

Yesterday, Tina Carr and Yvette Colon, two former defrauded students of the for-profit Sanford-Brown Institute in New York, sued the Department of Education (Department) and Navient to block the enforcement of their student loan debt. They sued because of the Department’s failure to act on thousands of borrower defense applications by former students whose debts it has the legal obligation to cancel. The Project on Predatory Student Lending and the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) represent Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon.

The lawsuit comes just as the Department convenes a second negotiated rulemaking committee in as many years on the subject of borrower defense. But what is happening in Washington D.C. is nothing more than regulatory theater: while claiming to process borrower defense applications, the Department has repeatedly delayed—and in this week’s rulemaking, will attempt to rewrite—a rule that would have clarified the process for borrowers like Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon to seek cancellation of fraudulent student loan debt. The Department has shown that it has no intention to give cheated students a fair hearing, and this rulemaking is further display of its bad faith.

Sanford-Brown, owned by Career Education Corporation (CEC), engaged in outright deception to induce Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon to enroll in its vocational programs. Both students entered programs in medical fields, only to find out after the fact that the school lacked the necessary accreditation and did not provide adequate training. Sanford-Brown also lied about its dismal track record of preparing students for medical vocations.

Ms. Colon and Ms. Carr are not alone in having been cheated by Sanford-Brown. The Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York (OAG) pursued CEC for these deceptions, and found that CEC systematically cheated students like Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon. Although Sanford-Brown representatives cited an 80 percent job placement rate to Ms. Carr, the OAG found that the actual placement rate was only 26.1 percent. The OAG found that Sanford-Brown committed widespread deception concerning programmatic accreditation, and failed to disclose that graduates generally could not transfer credits to legitimate schools. The OAG concluded that these practices violated New York’s consumer protection laws.

In March 2015, Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon submitted defense to repayment applications to the Department of Education and Navient, invoking their right to cancellation of their loans based on Sanford-Brown’s deceit. Despite Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon’s clear legal entitlement to loan cancellation, the Department and Navient have refused to consider their defenses, leaving Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon to struggle—along with tens of thousands of other borrowers whose defenses the Department has ignored—with burdensome and insurmountable student loan debt.

Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon did everything right, including submitting evidence from the OAG that Sanford-Brown deceived them into taking out loans to get an ‘education’ that would never lead to gainful employment. But almost three years later, Ms. Carr, Ms. Colon, and too many other students are still suffering every day from damaged credit and the threat of collection on these unlawful loans. They had no choice but to go to court.

Faced with the Department’s bad faith, and after almost three years of waiting, Ms. Carr and Ms. Colon are asking a federal judge to vindicate their right to be free of unlawful debt. You can read the complaint online here, and visit this page for more information about the case.

 

In a Second Rebuke to Department of Education, Federal Court Refuses to Relinquish Case of Corinthian Borrower

In its latest ruling on October 31, 2017, the United States District Court for the Central District of California demanded that the Department of Education respond to the allegations of Sarah Dieffenbacher, a mother of four who was defrauded by Everest, a Corinthian Campus in California.

Sarah’s case began when the Department threatened to garnish her wages to pay off her student loan debt, despite her numerous requests that the Department cancel the fraudulent debts. In response to the lawsuit, the government asked the court to send the case back to the Department so that it could continue to consider Sarah’s case without court oversight, but the court denied the request and ordered the Department to consider Sarah’s discharge applications by September. The Department failed to do so.

Instead, the Department issued an “interim order” purporting to withdraw its wage garnishment order and, in September, informed the court that it would take another six months to consider Sarah’s loan discharge application. In response, the court asked the parties to explain whether the Department’s actions should prevent the court from hearing the case. Sarah filed a detailed brief explaining that they did not; the Department filed three pages.

In its latest ruling, issued on October 31st, the court agreed with Sarah, denying the Department’s attempts to take this case out of federal court and ordering it to answer Sarah’s complaint within 20 days.

The court’s refusal to relinquish the case represents another rebuke of the Department’s efforts to deny Sarah her legal right to loan forgiveness, and another step toward vindicating Sarah’s rights. Sarah is legally entitled to have her loans from this fraudulent school cancelled, and the Department of Education’s refusal to acknowledge that she is entitled to loan cancellation is shameful. We will fight the Department of Education as it continues to side with the predatory industry instead of the students and taxpayers it is charged with protecting.

Robyn Smith, of the Legal Aid Foundation of LA, is co-counsel with the Project on Predatory Student Lending in Sarah’s case.

Project on Predatory Student Lending Invites Secretary DeVos to Meet with Former For-Profit College Students

Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, will be speaking at Harvard University’s Kennedy School this Thursday, September 28th. In a letter to the Secretary, the Project on Predatory Student Lending has requested the Secretary meet with former students who have been harmed by the deceptive practices of for-profit colleges. The letter notes that “as the head of the Department of Education,” DeVos has “the legal authority to cancel the student debt that these borrowers face as a result of the fraudulent behavior of these predatory colleges.” Under DeVos’s leadership, the Department of Education delayed new borrower defense rules scheduled to take place July 1, 2017. These rules would have protected borrowers from deceptive practices in higher education, while making it more difficult for predatory schools to take advantage of students by, as one example, prohibiting the use of forced arbitration clauses that block students’ ability to sue their school in court.

DeVos has justified rolling back these protections by claiming, “Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.” This statement is a gross mischaracterization of borrower defense, and is completely out of touch with the reality facing students who have been targeted and ripped off by the predatory for-profit industry. Students face tremendous barriers in getting the Department to recognize their legal entitlement to loan cancellation. For example, Project client Sarah Dieffenbacher has petitioned the Department at least four times for borrower defense. Rather than cancel her loans, the Department used coercive measure to collect on them, including attempts at wage garnishment. Ms. Dieffenbacher, a single mother who was falsely told by Everest College that its paralegal program was accredited by the ABA and that she could transfer her credits towards a law degree, is in jeopardy of losing her car and her apartment because of the Department’s actions. Since DeVos assumed the position of Secretary of Education, The Department of Education has not acknowledged a single borrower defense application, ignoring its legal responsibility to cancel student loan debt for students who were defrauded by the illegal and deceptive practices of for-profit colleges.

Borrowers are seeking recognition of their rights, not “free money.” In fact, the only “free money” at issue is the taxpayer money that flows into the coffers of predatory for-profit colleges. As the Project on Predatory Student Lending’s letter to DeVos states, “for-profit colleges are the most tax-subsidized of any private industry. More than $30 billion in taxpayer money goes to this industry each year in the form of federal student loans.” Billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into fraudulent corporate profit while DeVos is doing nothing to prevent this abuse.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending asks that DeVos make time to meet with former students of for-profit colleges. After hearing firsthand about the tremendous harm caused by the for-profit college industry, the Project hopes that DeVos will re-think her policies to favor students and taxpayers, not corporate profits. The Boston Globe covered the request here.

AP Story Quotes LSC Attorney on Delay in Cancelling Predatory For-Profit College Loans

Tens of thousands of former students who say they were swindled by for-profit colleges are being left in limbo as the Trump administration delays action on requests for loan forgiveness, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press. The Education Department is sitting on more than 65,000 unapproved claims as it rewrites Obama-era rules that sought to better protect students.

Alec Harris, a lawyer with Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School who is representing one such student – Sarah Dieffenbacher a single mother of four who owes $50,000 in student loans —  said the inaction could put his client and her children on the street. “This is a Department of Education that has seemingly sided with industry and stacked the deck against former students of predatory for-profit schools every step of the way,” Harris said.

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