Predatory Lending/Consumer Protection Clinic

LSC Clinics Work Creatively to Assist Client Communities Affected by COVID-19

The attorneys and student advocates at the Legal Services Center continue to work tirelessly for our clients as they face unprecedented challenges and financial distress.  Below is a brief update on just some of our latest work and innovative approaches as we advocate for our client community during these trying times.

Veterans Clinic

Getting safety net benefits to veterans in need

Mass Vet Benefit CalculatorOur clinic has reported a tenfold increase in recent visitors to our new online calculator—MassVetBen.org—that helps veterans determine their eligibility for a unique $72 million Massachusetts program which offers emergency cash assistance to veterans and their family members for basic needs such as housing, food, fuel, and medical care. Although this program is more crucial than ever during the COVID crisis, disabled and low-income veterans often remain in the dark about how to actually access these benefits. We and other advocates have been reaching out to the state Department of Veterans Services and the media to get more financial assistance into the hands of our low-income veterans more quickly. Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of our advocacy efforts.

A social distance success: Executing estate documents in a pandemic world

When the pandemic began, Destini Agüero, director of LSC’s Estate Planning Project, was concerned because the Project’s clients—all of whom are disabled veterans and many of whom are of advanced age—face a unique combination of challenges in the COVID-19 outbreak. They have urgent needs to get their estates in order, are at high risk from the virus, and may lack access to virtual platforms or not be able to easily navigate them. In addition, until legislation was passed in late April, the execution of wills and other estate documents required an in-person notary.

social distance document execution

LSC staff members carry out an outdoor, socially distant document execution for a veteran client.

Student attorney Bryce Burgwyn ’21—a veteran herself—had established a trusting relationship with her elderly client, a U.S. Air Force veteran seeking documents that protected his wishes in the event of a crisis. Burgwyn worked tirelessly since the start of the Spring semester to counsel her client and draft his estate planning documents. Once remote learning for law students was in place, Burgwyn pivoted immediately to ensure she stayed connected with her client and established a schedule of regular phone calls to complete his documents. She was not deterred by the added challenges the pandemic brought, and instead further earned her client’s trust as she assured him that her level of representation would not waiver despite an inability to meet in person.

Once his documents were completed, Agüero and her students set out to find a way to execute them. They created a plan for an outdoor document execution that would keep all parties well beyond six feet apart while still allowing for the documents to be reviewed, signed, and notarized. Agüero put out a call for volunteers to her LSC colleagues, looking for two witnesses and one notary. She also provided a detailed plan for the unique process to everyone ahead of time—what documents would be emailed and printed beforehand; what materials everyone would need to bring; and step-by-step rules for how the process would happen with all parties maintaining appropriate distance and personal protection.

On the day of the document execution, with chairs aligned around a field and plenty of hand sanitizer available, the process went smoothly, and the client was very happy to have his documents completed and fully executed. He now had peace of mind that his affairs were in order. Agüero expressed gratitude for the collaborative spirit that made the process a success, saying, “I’m incredibly appreciative to my colleagues who were willing and able to volunteer. With the help of our fantastic LSC community, we’ll continue to find creative ways of helping people during this crisis.”

Social Security Disability and SNAP/Food Stamp wins yield over 137,000 in back payments plus sizable monthly benefits for clients

In the two short weeks of March before LSC moved to remote work, Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack, and her students (two of them veterans themselves) represented four clients in administrative hearings before the Social Security Administration and the Massachusetts Welfare Department. Three cases have been decided already, despite both agencies having moved to remote work – resulting in more than $137,000 in back payments for clients, plus ongoing benefits totaling $2360 per month moving forward. Read the full article…

Criminal record sealing self-help materials developed

Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack and the students working with her on criminal record sealing (a mostly administrative process before the Massachusetts Probation Service) have taken advantage of the enforced slow-down brought about by COVID19 to develop audio-visual self-help materials for veterans and others seeking to remove the stigma of long ago involvement in the criminal justice system. These materials will be shared with Veterans Advocacy groups and community activists over the coming month. Read more…

Project on Predatory Student Lending

Class action filed against Florida Career College

The Project on Predatory Student Lending filed suit on behalf of students of Florida Career College (FCC), a Florida-based for-profit college chain, for selling a predatory product systematically targeting Black students using false representations and high-pressure sales tactics that leave students in mountains of debt they cannot repay.

FCC is a for-profit college that operates multiple campuses in Florida and one in Texas. Co-counsel for the case are the law firms Gelber Schachter & Greenberg and Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello.

The suit was filed as a class action in federal court, despite FCC’s history of using of forced arbitration provisions in their contracts, because a 2016 federal rule requires schools taking federal student aid—like FCC—to agree that students may bring claims like this in court. FCC’s programs cost up to $51,925, yet in Fall 2018, FCC spent only between 4 and 18 percent of the tuition on programs at its Hialeah, West Palm Beach and Lauderdale Lakes campuses.

Its racially focused tactics include using Black models in many of its advertisements, targeting high schools with large percentages of Black students for outreach, and targeting its media placements to outlets whose audiences are predominantly people of color. Learn more from the Project on Predatory Lending’s press release about the suit, and additional coverage from Republic Report and Law.com.

Family Law/Domestic Violence Clinic

In telephone hearing, student wins protections for client seeking to extend restraining order against an abusive spouse

A student successfully represented a client looking to extend her restraining order against an abusive spouse amid the COVID-19 crisis. The hearing – held by telephone rather than in person due to the virus – resulted in the client obtaining a one–year extension of the restraining order, which was a longer-than-anticipated extension from the court.

Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic

Debt extinguished, debt collector punished

A judge ruled that a Fall River woman sued by a debt collector in the City of Boston should have her $4,000 debt extinguished and receive a $1,250 payment from the debt collector after her LSC student attorney successfully argued that the debt collector had erred in filing the suit in Boston when state law requires that such suits be filed in the jurisdiction where the debtor lives. The $1,250 payment was levied for the inconvenience to the client of having to drive to Boston to appear in court.

Tax Clinic

Fighting for tax justice on behalf of exonerees

The Tax Clinic has been fighting on behalf of multiple individuals who were exonerated for crimes and subsequently received substantial payments for wrongful incarceration. In 2015 Congress passed a new code section, 139F, excluding payments received as a result of exoneration from inclusion in income. It made the exclusion retroactive; however, before the passage of this section many exonerees had received payments causing engagement with the tax system. Across the country a number of exonerees were being pursued by the IRS for taxes that were believed to be owed on the exoneration payments made before 2015. In one case, thanks to the work of Tax Clinic students and lawyers, the tax liability has been successfully reduced from several hundred thousand to $419 dollars. That individual had been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and incarcerated for twelve years. In another case, where an individual had been wrongly incarcerated for seven years a tax liability of over $100,000 has been reduced to zero. Both men were released after DNA evidence conclusively proved their innocence. The Tax Clinic continues its partnership with the non-profit organization After Innocence to assist exonerated individuals with any tax problems they may have.

LSC Responds to COVID-19: An Update from Our Clinics

The Legal Services Center’s staff and students hope you are staying safe and healthy. We are all doing the best we can as we take on new challenges in advocating for client communities made ever more vulnerable by the COVID-19 outbreak. To be sure, remote teaching and lawyering present certain barriers, but these are nothing compared to what our client communities are going through. Here is a snapshot of how COVID-19 is impacting the people we serve and how we are responding.

Tax Clinic

The Tax Clinic is taking on new challenges while continuing to pursue its cutting-edge federal court litigation on behalf of low-income taxpayers. Among the new challenges, the clinic is pivoting to help people who need returns prepared in order to obtain refunds or benefits under the federal CARES Act.

In some cases, benefiting from key aspects of the federal CARES Act is contingent upon individuals having filed a tax return and having provided the IRS with a bank account so that funds can be deposited. Clients can also receive money via check, but the government estimates that checks will be distributed much more slowly. All free preparation sites used by low-income taxpayers have shut down, and it is unclear when they will reopen. We are therefore doing our best to help clients who may not have filed a return for 2018 or 2019 to do so, so they can receive CARES-related federal assistance as quickly as possible. The urgency of our work on these returns is driven by the knowledge that our client community is in desperate need of cash in order to meet their basic necessities.

Simultaneously, one of the Clinic’s cases will be argued to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which sits in Philadelphia and is hearing cases by phone rather than in person. The student who will be arguing the case is being prepared for that argument via moots on Zoom and by phone (the latter to simulate the circumstances of the actual oral argument). Not only will the student not have the benefit of the visual cues that can be so helpful in arguing a case before a three-judge panel, the student and his supervisor, Tax Clinic Director and Clinical Professor Keith Fogg, will be sitting in different states rather than side by side in the same courtroom when the case is argued. These are truly unusual times.

Fogg also presented a two-hour American Bar Association-sponsored continuing legal education (CLE) course via Zoom to hundreds of low-income taxpayer clinics across the country to train them on how best to deal with IRS issues in the pandemic. This is just one example of how our clinics continue to not only advocate for our own clients but are also training people across the country to advocate for clients in their own communities.

Housing Clinic

With almost all eviction litigation paused in the Eastern (Boston) Division of Housing Court, the Housing Clinic’s focus has been on affirmative community advocacy.  In addition to direct (and successful!) advocacy focused on suspending Housing Court proceedings, and supporting the statewide campaign to enact a legislative moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the Housing Clinic has been actively working with community and statewide organizations that serve clients who may have already been threatened with eviction and foreclosure or anticipate a threat will be forthcoming due to job loss during the crisis. Our partners in this effort include the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), City Life/Vida Urbana, and Greater Boston Legal Services.

Since the state of emergency began, the Housing Clinic has been responding remotely to requests for support and advice, and has played an active role in developing written responses to frequently asked housing-related questions published on MLRI’s website. In one instance, we secured emergency relief from the Housing Court when a landlord threatened the interests of a current client.

If 2008 is a harbinger of what’s ahead, we know that there will be a significant backlog of clients who will have difficulty or be wholly unable to pay their rent or mortgages, and will be facing eviction and foreclosure. We are already gathering and organizing resources and referral partners to prepare for the eventual restart of the court system, and we are working to be optimally positioned to advocate for our clients and the community.

Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic

As of this writing, only emergency restraining order requests are being heard by the local family courts. That said, this is a particularly dangerous time for our clients, as they are compelled to shelter in place and may not be able leave a dangerous home situation. They are even more trapped than usual. When we are in contact with our clients in this situation, we need to be much more careful, in some cases resorting to text or email rather than phone calls in an effort to be more discreet. We continue our work with the Passageway medical-legal partnership at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, collaborating closely with social workers there to ensure safety plans and legal counseling for people seeking help. We anticipate that once physical distancing abates there will be a significant increase in case work in this arena.

Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic

Our team has been working with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and partner non-profits to gain a moratorium on all debt collection. The clinic has also established a new hotline for individuals who may be subject to unlawful debt collection during this period to provide emergency assistance.

Project on Predatory Student Lending

The economic devastation is affecting our clients greatly as they lose jobs and income. But for-profit colleges and their predatory recruiting practices have traditionally prospered during economic downturns, and we have no reason to think it will be any different this time. Companies are already advertising crisis-related content targeting unemployed people. And the industry is receiving many millions of dollars in stimulus funding.

The stimulus package also included a six-month suspension on the repayment of student loans owned by the federal government, but this policy excludes 9 million student loans, and borrowers can’t tell whether they are covered. In a cruel irony, our clients who filed their federal tax returns before March 13 have had their refunds seized to pay back federal loans, while those who waited will not have their refunds seized once they file returns. Our students are stepping up to help clients understand where they stand and how to hold on to their tax refunds.

And in good news late last week, we learned that the federal Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos have agreed to process nearly 170,000 debt cancellation claims within 18 months from borrowers who say they were defrauded by their colleges. The proposed settlement agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in California on Friday, stems from a class-action lawsuit brought against Education Secretary DeVos and her agency in June by a group of borrowers awaiting decisions on their applications, some for as long as four years.  The plaintiffs were represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending  along with Housing & Economic Rights Advocates (HERA).  To learn more, read the press release from PPSL as well as coverage from the Washington Post here and the AP here and Courthouse News here.

Veterans Clinic

We have seen a stunning increase in the use of the Mass Veterans Benefits Calculator, an online tool developed by LSC that helps veterans and their families estimate their eligibility for benefits under a vastly underutilized state program that can provide as much as $1,000 a month in additional income to low-income vets. The calculator has seen a 1000% increase in usage since early March as veterans and their family members seek more information about how to make ends meet during this crisis.

The Veterans Legal Clinic continues to advocate for its individual clients and client community, and we remain open for intake to screen for new legal issues that are arising during the pandemic. A clinic student advocated for a low-income, disabled veteran in a telephone hearing before the Department of Veterans Services to ensure his access to financial assistance during this difficult time. In similar manner to the Tax Clinic case mentioned earlier, the student diligently prepared the client for this remote hearing and was able to chat with his supervisor through Zoom to get live feedback during the hearing. The client’s disabilities prevent him from working during normal economic times, but the current crisis makes these benefits even more critical to his survival.

Our estate planning practice has also been busy helping to draft planning documents like wills and health care proxies – services that are only more important in a time of increasing health risks to our elderly and sick veteran populations. The practice has been adapting to the new normal of conducting client meetings by phone and videoconferencing and devising creative methods to permit execution of estate planning documents, like remote notarization.

LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic

LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic Director Alex Chen was interviewed recently by the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review; listen to the ‘Taking Liberties’ podcast here. While not coronavirus-specific, the interview is a wonderful way to learn more about our newest clinic, its director, and its goals.

Other Work

LSC’s work was also highlighted recently in Harvard Law Today. The first article, about the law school’s response to the pandemic, featured the Tax Clinic, while the second, a fascinating article about a (pre-pandemic) day-in-the-life of our clinical students, includes information on our criminal record sealing and veterans benefits efforts.

Dear Presidential Candidates: Yes, You Can Cancel All Student Debt on Day One

Dear Presidential Candidates: Yes, You Can Cancel All Student Debt on Day One

 

With the presidential primaries now in full swing, the issue of the nation’s whopping $1.5 trillion in student loan debt – and whether to cancel it – has become a popular topic, highlighting a growing consensus that the current system of debt-financed higher education is broken.

 

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently proposed a new idea pledging that if elected, she would direct her Department of Education to cancel student loan debt on day one of her presidency. This is certainly big news. But this idea is not so new to us, in fact we provided  legal analysis showing that it’s possible. We hope she will be the first of many candidates to pledge to follow through on this simple, but transformational, idea to help families across the country.

 

You’re probably wondering – can the President really enact mass student debt cancellation on such a broad scale on her own? The short answer is, yes. Legally, the power to create debt generally comes with it the power to cancel it. In this case, Congress granted the Secretary of Education a more specific authority to create and cancel debt owed under the federal student loan programs in the Higher Education Act.

 

So, yes, the President can direct the Secretary of Education to cancel all federal student loan debt – on day one.

 

The question then is – why?

 

At the Project on Predatory Student Lending, we’ve seen first-hand the difference it makes when students’ loans are cancelled. Jorge Villalba, a client who was cheated by the notorious for-profit college ITT Tech, struggled under massive fraudulent debt for years. After a long wait and a separate lawsuit in ITT Tech’s bankruptcy, he finally had his federal student loan debts cancelled. Almost immediately, Jorge’s credit score improved, he became eligible for lower interest rates to pay down his other debt, and he began digging himself out. He is proud to be planning his family’s future for the first time since his debt nightmare began.

 

Unfortunately, Jorge’s experience is all too rare.

 

Right now, there are over 44 million Americans with a combined $1.5 trillion in student debt.

 

Of those, we represent over a million borrowers who hold the worst kind of student debt: federal student loans taken out to attend for-profit colleges. For-profit colleges are notorious for preying on students – many of them low-income, veterans, single mothers, or people of color – with lies about quality training and job placements in order to pocket their federal student aid dollars. These schools provide little to no instruction and the majority of students we hear from report they are worse off today than before they went to school.

 

State Attorneys General have brought case after case against for-profit colleges that have committed massive fraud against students. On that basis alone, the federal government has the legal obligation to cancel students’ loans. We have even brought cases on behalf of students asserting that right, and won. But the government has refused to cancel the debts, and. Yet the Trump administration continues to ignore the facts and the law.

 

While the public has acknowledged student debt is at crisis levels that threaten the financial well-being of millions of Americans, there are still those candidates and elected officials who distance themselves from student loan cancellation. This is ill-advised, because research shows that mass loan cancellation will actually help stimulate the U.S. economy.

 

According to a study by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, cancelling all student debt would increase our Gross National Product by one trillion dollars over 10 years. It would cause unemployment to go down, and it would create 1.5 million jobs per year. It would allow students to move out of their parents’ homes and start families, or even their own small businesses.

 

It’s time that more policymakers see loan cancellation for what it truly is: a non-partisan issue that would benefit students and the economy for generations to come.

 

Yes, the current President – or our next one – has the authority to cancel more than a trillion in debt held by millions of former students. And it has the obligation to cancel loans of students cheated by their schools.

 

That should be step one, on day one. Our students, and our country, can’t afford to wait a day longer.

My Student Loan Truth: Jared’s South University Story

One year ago, the Dream Center chain of for-profit colleges collapsed, closing schools across the country – including the Art Institutes, Argosy University, and South University -and leaving tens thousands of students stranded and scammed out of an education. Jared Russell attended South University and was one of those students. 

This is Jared’s story.

 

How did you hear about South University and why did you decide to attend?

I was originally looking to find a commercial driver’s license and was reaching out to different companies for training. One company asked if I had ever considered going back to school. I expressed a slight interest and the representative I was talking to immediately transferred the call so we were on directly with a rep at South University. Within a few days, I was fully enrolled as a student in their Information Technology program. Looking back, I should have seen that as a red flag. It was weird how quickly the company put me in touch with South and how quickly they pushed through the enrollment process.

 

What did South tell you about the school’s programs or resources as you were enrolling?

I was told that South worked directly with corporations placing students in internships and that there was a good possibility to go from a placed internship to working full time. But what they don’t tell you are the real numbers. They don’t tell you that most students don’t experience any direct help from South, never mind get a job.

 

What were classes at South University like?

Most of my family is in IT, so when I would get assignments, I would show them the material. My family members were concerned and told me the programs, software, and materials they were using to teach were several years out of date – sometimes by decades. The information they were using wasn’t even relevant in the field anymore.

Sometimes, the assignments were 3-5 question “knowledge checks” with selectable answers. The format was terrible because it never revealed what question you got wrong, if you got one wrong. On top of that, I found questions whose “correct” answers were in fact wrong, and on a number of occasions, I pointed this out to instructors. Some took it seriously, but others pretty much blew it off as normal.

All of that prompted me to withdraw from South University last March, and I transferred to another university. Less than half of my credits transferred. I basically started over. The school wouldn’t accept any of the IT focused class credits.

 

How much debt did you accrue from attending South University? Have you started paying the loans back?

Between April of 2017 to March of 2019, I took out between $26,000 to $32,000. Before withdrawing, South owed me a refund, and after I left, they claimed that I owed them that money. They immediately sent their collections agency after me threatening that if I didn’t comply with the payments, they could do something with my current financial aid. That freaked me out because I can’t afford for them to mess with my financial aid again.

 

How has that debt impacted your life and decision making so far?

Because I’m still in school, not enough time has passed for me to be required to pay anything yet. But I’m constantly worried about what will happen and that it will somehow affect my ability to get additional loans. And I assume it will impact my credit at some point.

 

What would you say to the people who question whether loans from South and other predatory for-profit colleges should be cancelled?

I would say that I took out these loans under false pretenses. It was fraud, plain and simple. I was told I would receive a service that I never actually received. I was lucky that I’m a little older so I’ve had past experiences and family members that helped me realize things were not right. I caught the red flags eventually. I can’t imagine being 18 or 19 and having no idea what’s happening. I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to get these calls from collection agencies. These schools harass you to comply and it’s scary.

My Student Loan Truth: Andrea’s Story

When the Department of Education seized Andrea’s tax refunds to pay for bogus student loan debt from Corinthian Colleges, there were devastating effects for her entire family.

 

Andrea Smith is a single mother living in Decatur, Michigan with three teenage children and a 5-month old granddaughter. She was scammed by Everest Institute, part of Corinthian Colleges, and has been working to overcome the damage the school caused ever since. This is her student loan truth.

 

Why did you decide to attend Everest?

Growing up, my family struggled financially. I was poor her my whole life, but I wanted things to be different for my own family and to show my children that a college degree could make a difference for a better life. Everest guaranteed job placement and a good career, so I enrolled in the medical assisting program.

 

What was your experience like trying to get a job after completing the Everest program?

It became clear pretty quickly that these guaranteed jobs did not exist and that they had lied to students. They promised us jobs they knew we would never get. We were overcharged and undereducated and then Everest left us high and dry.

 

How have the student loans from Everest impacted your life?

Here I am, 6 years later with nothing to show for my education and a lot of wasted time. My inability to pay off these loans has crippled me with terrible credit. As a single mom, you don’t have time to waste or money to spare.  To add insult to injury, they even took my tax refunds two years in a row, which was absolutely devastating. I was counting on those tax refunds, and not having them caused my world to come crashing down.

 

What happened when you found out the Department of Education would be taking your tax refunds to pay for your debt from Everest?

The first time my refund was taken in 2018, I had a plan to use it to leave an abusive relationship. Being financially dependent was part of the abuse. Without that $5,000 refund, I couldn’t leave. Eventually, through the help of friends and family, I was able to take my kids and move out of state, but it was an extremely stressful experience.

Then in 2019, I was unemployed and counting on the next tax refund of $9,000. I had a new grandbaby on the way and had rent to pay. But again, the Department of Education took my refund and I was back in a financial crisis. Fortunately, I was able to get assistance from a local church to help avoid eviction, but it wasn’t enough to keep us in our apartment. So I had to pack up and move back to Michigan with my family and pregnant daughter.

 

How did the financial stress impact your family?

My granddaughter was born seven weeks premature shortly after returning to Michigan and was hospitalized for weeks. I truly believe the financial stress on the whole family during that time was a major reason for the premature birth. There has been so much time lost and pain endured by my whole family because of this debt, and that can never be recovered.

 

What would you say to the Department of Education about your experience with this debt?

I wish they would remember that we are good, hardworking, people who just wanted to build a better life for ourselves and our families. These companies took advantage of us on the Department’s watch.  Changes need to be made so this situation can never happen to future generations.

 

Do you still believe in higher education as an opportunity for a better future?

Despite all the setbacks, I’ve always been able to get back on my feet. I’m not giving up. I have a new job (which has nothing to do with my medical assisting degree), I’m in a happy, stable relationship with my fiancé, and my granddaughter and children are healthy.  And I’m hopeful that for them, college can actually be an opportunity and not a burden.

LSC’s Toby Merrill ’11 named to the TIME 100 Next list

The founder of the Project on Predatory Student Lending is recognized for leading the fight against predatory for-profit colleges and fighting for the rights of over one million student borrowers.

toby merrill

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending.
(Photo: Martha Stewart)

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School, has been named to the first-ever TIME 100 Next list, an expansion of the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world. The list highlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of business, entertainment, sports, politics, health, science and activism, and more. Others on the TIME 100 Next list include Pete Buttigieg, Kyrsten Sinema, Aly Raisman. The full list and related tributes appear in the November 25, 2019 issue of TIME, available on newsstands on Friday, November 15, and now at time.com/next.

TIME 100 Next says of Merrill: “Years before student debt would be widely considered a national crisis—Americans now owe a combined $1.6 trillion—Toby Merrill started using litigation to fight what she calls the ‘worst-of-the-worst student debt,’ the kind incurred by students who enrolled in predatory for-profit colleges that burdened them with debt and provided them with worthless degrees.”

Read more at Harvard Law Today.

UPDATE: Judge Grants Class Certification to 200,000 Student Borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos

96% of the 900 class members who submitted affidavits in support of this motion said their lives are worse today than before they went to school

 

On Wednesday, October 30, a judge certified the class of more than 200,000 borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos, a case that seeks to force the Department of Education to process their borrower defense applications. This victory for borrowers ensures that the voices of former for-profit college students, who have been cheated by their school and ignored by their government for years, will be heard.

The judge also issued a sharp rebuke of the Department’s excuses for its inaction, saying that the Department’s actions, as alleged in the lawsuit, show “the uniform policy of inaction.”

The court goes on:

But here is a fact no one disputes: the Department has decided zero applications since June 2018 (Dkt. No. 20-20 at 20; Compl. ¶ 181). As represented during oral argument, over 210,000 borrower defense claims now remain pending and the Department has failed to grant or deny a single application since June 2018. This is especially striking considering that between July 2016 and January 20, 2017, the Department had decided approximately 27,996 borrower defenses applications (Compl. ¶ 135). Even if this gaping contrast might possibly be explained in part by the preliminary injunction in Manriquez, it nonetheless evidences the uniform policy of inaction alleged here where the proposed class explicitly excludes Corinthian borrowers who are members of the Manriquez class. According to plaintiffs, the Department “has a legal duty to reach a final decision on each borrower defense assertion” and it is undisputed that — despite the swelling backlog — “it has refused to satisfy that duty for well over a year” (id. ¶¶ 52–76; Dkt. No. 42 at 3).

 

In less than a month after the lawsuit was filed, more than 900 students submitted their testimony to support the certification of this class, and to have their voices heard. The extensive testimony provides a comprehensive summary of the overwhelming harm of the continued debt and stress on students’ lives due to the Department of Education’s refusal to process their claims. Specifically, students reported problems like financial and mental health consequences, and delaying basic life decisions like starting a family or pursuing additional education.

The testimony data show:

  • 96% of students reported that their lives are worse today than before they went to school.
  • 61% of students reported deferring further education
  • 47% of students reported deferring marriage and children
  • 32% of students reported continuing to receive payment demands after submitting their Defense to Repayment
  • 958 days (2.6 years) is the average time students have been waiting for an answer from the U.S. Department of Education on their Borrower Defense applications

 

Click here to view testimonial excerpts and videos from students across the country who were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

For more information on this case, click here.

Amanda’s Everest Institute Story

Amanda Wilson went to Everest College in Chelsea, Massachusetts to get a degree in medical assisting. When the Corinthian-owned school collapsed and was found to have misled students, the Massachusetts Attorney General filed an application with the Department of Education asking it to cancel the loans of all Corinthian students in Massachusetts, citing the for-profit college chain’s extensive fraud. This was in 2015 – now, four years later, these loans still haven’t been cancelled and Amanda is part of the lawsuit Vara v DeVos to force the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos to act.

This is her student loan truth.

 

What made you decide to attend Everest?

It was a combination of things. My cousin was already enrolled there and I had also seen a lot of ads on TV and online about students’ personal success stories that resonated with me, so I decided to apply for a medical assisting degree.

The advisors were pushy and over the top about getting students to sign up. They were very vague about the financial process and I ended up taking out more loans than I realized. The whole process was confusing and felt very rushed. Looking back now, I realize that the enrollment process should have sparked red flags. But I was young and I trusted the school and my cousin.

 

What was your experience like at Everest?

Right away I felt that the class structure was very disjointed. Because Everest lets people start at any time instead of only at the beginning of a semester, new students would be enrolling and joining classes every month. So instructors would constantly backtrack in order to get the new students up to speed, making the class structure very difficult to really learn anything. It was clearly built around just getting more people in the door and not actually educating them.

 

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

In the beginning, recruiters stressed that there was a 100% success rate among Everest graduates, as advisors were really active in helping with the job search, but that was definitely not true. In my graduating class, I know the majority of us didn’t get any of the help we were promised.

Trying to find a job on our own was really difficult because we quickly realized that a lot of places didn’t accept the Everest degree. Employers felt I didn’t have the right hands-on experience or the hours in the field they required to get the skills they wanted. At that point, it was too late to go back and get those credentials without paying more money and going back to a different school. It made it impossible to gain the experience employers require.

I was never able to find a job using that degree. I continued at the job that I had while I was in school, then eventually, switched to get a job in medical manufacturing, which has nothing to do with medical assisting.

 

How has the debt from this experience impacted your life?

I have a total of $18k in federal and private loans. It’s been a really difficult process, especially realizing that the school cheated us and we got a worthless degree.

The process for trying to get these loans cancelled has been extremely stressful. I know the Attorney General submitted the borrower defense application years ago, but still the Department of Education has put my loans on hold and then back into default twice.

Financially, I can’t plan my life. It’s ruined my credit and I was unable to purchase a house or a car without a cosigner. I’m trying to go back to school and move on from this, but I can’t because of all the problems with my loans.

 

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They’ve ignored the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to the Department about the need to cancel these loans?

I don’t think they understand how much people are really struggling as it is. We’re getting our wages garnished and our tax refunds taken. Nobody can get a straight answer on the status of their loans, and the Department continues to collect when they’re not supposed to. It crushes people. We’re stuck. It’s a really difficult place to be, to deal with that mentally and financially.

In a system that forces you to go to school, it’s really discouraging to have this experience. It makes you not want to invest in this system that we’ve been told works for everybody. How can you trust another school to not do the same thing, when you didn’t think this would happen to you in the first place?

 

Why did you decide to join this lawsuit to force the Department to act?

The biggest reason is because the lack of accountability towards the Department of Education. They shouldn’t be able to just ignore students and the law and the Attorney General’s application for borrower defense. It’s unfair. A lot of people worked hard, graduated at the top of their class, and were still left in this spot. We were cheated. It destroys your faith in the government and in our system of education and I think it’s important to stand up to that.

 

 

For more information on Vara v. DeVos, click here.

Major Victory for Defrauded Students as Education Department Is Held in Contempt, Fined

 

“Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable.”

Toby Merrill, Director

Project on Predatory Student Lending

The Project on Predatory Student Lending secured a critical court ruling on behalf of students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges, as a federal judge held Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in contempt and fined the Department of Education $100,000 for violation of a June 2018 court order prohibiting the Department from collecting on loans from thousands of student borrowers. The ruling is part of a larger class action lawsuit brought by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Housing and Economic Rights Advocates to obtain debt relief for students defrauded by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco said that there was “no question” that the Department of Education’s actions violated the preliminary injunction, and that those violations “harmed individual borrowers.” Project on Predatory Student Lending Director Toby Merrill applauded the ruling, saying “Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable. Thousands of students illegally had their tax refunds seized and wages garnished, and the Department still can’t identify all of the affected students nor refunded the money. The judge is sending a loud and clear message: students have rights under the law and DeVos’ illegal and reckless violation of their rights will not be tolerated.”

Read the Project on Predatory Student Lending’s press release about this important ruling, and see coverage in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times.

Sharing Insights To Protect Low-income Taxpayers, Tenants, and Victims of Predatory For-Profit Schools

Attorneys at the Legal Services Center represent thousands of low-income clients every year to protect their rights. Our attorneys also bring their expertise and passion to bear through publications that raise awareness of critical issues and promote our client community’s legal rights. Recent publications from LSC staff members have covered topics ranging from protections for low-income taxpayers, people victimized by predatory for-profit schools, and tenants facing economic exploitation.

This summer, Victoria Roytenberg of LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending published “How Trustees Can Make Sure Former Students of Predatory For-Profit Schools Are Served by the Bankruptcy Process”in the American Bankruptcy Trustee Journal (Summer 2019 issue, Vol. 35, Issue 03). In this article, Roytenberg describes five ways bankruptcy trustees can work effectively with counsel for students to help what is the largest and most important group of creditors in the for-profit schools scandal.

Toby Merrill, Eileen Connor and Josh Rovenger, all of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, were among the co-authors of an article on the Harvard Law Review blog entitled “For-Profit Schools’ Predatory Practices and Students of Color: A Mission to Enroll Rather than Educate.” In it they highlight the particularly pernicious ways in which for-profit schools have targeted racial minorities, those who are the first generation in their family to go to college, and other low-income individuals — and how the federal Department of Education has abetted them in this effort. Read the blog here.

Keith Fogg of LSC’s Federal Tax Clinic, has been a longtime editor of Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS, the desktop bible for advocates representing low-income taxpayers before the IRS. Together with two co-authors, he also writes the widely followed blog Procedurally Taxing that regularly considers developments in regulations and case law that affect tax procedures and tax administration. You can read the blog at https://procedurallytaxing.com/

And LSC’s housing specialists Julia Devanthery and Maureen McDonagh have written chapters for the manual Legal Tactics: Private Housing, an easy-to-understand, comprehensive handbook on Massachusetts tenants’ rights for lay audiences, edited by Annette R. Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. This manual, available free and online, focuses on private rental housing and answers questions on everything from security deposits and last month’s rent to rent and utilities, repairs, evictions, housing discrimination, lead poisoning, mobile homes, and tenants in foreclosed properties. You can find the manual here.