Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
District Court denies preliminary injunction; Department of Education’s Borrower Defense Regulations take effect
On October 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied plaintiff California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools’ request for preliminary injunction to enjoin the implementation and enforcement of several provisions of the Department of Education’s Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”). The Borrower Defense Regulations—finalized in 2016 and originally set to take effect July 1, 2017—are designed to protect student borrowers against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions and clarify a process for loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Under the regulations, the Department is required to create a “clear, fair, and transparent” process for handling borrowers’ loan discharge requests and to automatically forgive the loans of some students at schools that closed, without requiring borrowers to apply for that relief. However, according to the court, because the Department stayed the effective date of the majority of the regulations pending resolution of the case, the plaintiff’s motion was never fully briefed or decided. After hearing oral arguments, the court concluded that the plaintiff “failed to carry its burden of demonstrating that any one of its members is likely to suffer an irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction.” Moreover, the court stated that it was “not convinced that the [plaintiff] has shown a ‘substantial likelihood’ that it has standing to sue.”
Per the court’s decision, the Borrower Defense Regulations became effective immediately. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court sided with a coalition of state Attorneys General last month, ruling that the Department’s decision to delay the regulations was procedurally invalid, but delayed implementation of the regulations pending a decision in the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
District Court holds Department of Education stay of student loan regulations is procedurally invalid
On September 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of a consolidated action brought by a coalition of 19 state Attorneys General and the District of Columbia as well as two student borrowers (collectively, the plaintiffs), holding that the Department of Education’s (Department) decision to delay the enactment of Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”) was “procedurally invalid.” The Borrower Defense Regulations, published November 2016, afford students protections against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions (see previous InfoBytes coverage here), and were set to take effect July 1, 2017. However, the Department delayed the effective date pending the resolution of a lawsuit challenging certain portions of the regulations filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools; delayed the effective date further through an interim rule issued in October 2017; and last February, issued a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019.
The Department argued it was entitled to a stay under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act because the lawsuit “raised serious questions concerning the validity of certain provisions of the final regulations and ha[d] identified substantial injuries that could result if the final regulations [went] into effect before those questions [were] resolved.” The court disagreed with the Department’s argument, finding that in order to justify a Section 705 stay, “an agency must, in short, do more than simply assert—without elaboration—that the litigation raises unspecified ‘serious questions’ for resolution and that a stay will save regulated parties the cost of compliance.” Moreover, the court concluded that (i) plaintiffs have standing to challenge the Department’s delay actions; (ii) the Department’s 2017 interim final rule “is based on an unlawful construction of the Higher Education Act”; (iii) the February final rule is “procedurally invalid”; and (iv) the Section 705 stay is “judicially reviewable” and “arbitrary and capricious.”
District Court rules student loan servicer must turn over Department of Education borrower records to Bureau
On August 10, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered a loan servicer hired by the Department of Education (Department) to service loans it owns to turn over certain Department-owned student loan borrower documents to the CFPB, which relate to the servicer’s collection and management of its federal student loan borrowers’ payments. During the course of the ongoing litigation (see previous InfoBytes coverage here), the servicer withheld the documents in discovery on the grounds that they belonged to the Department and were therefore protected from disclosure by the Privacy Act. Moreover, the servicer asserted that the dispute was really between the Bureau and the Department because, in order to turn over the documents, the servicer would first have to obtain permission from the Department.
However, according to the opinion issued by the court, turning over the documents would not violate the defendants’ agreement with the Department or violate federal privacy law. Specifically, the court stated that “there is no dispute that the borrower documents at issue are in the possession of [d]efendants, even if, as [d]efendants assert, they are owned by the Department,” and as such, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “requests can be made for production of documents, electronically stored information, and things in ‘the responding party’s possession, custody or control.’” Furthermore, the court stated that “the Privacy Act’s general prohibition on disclosure of records . . . does not create a qualified discovery privilege” and cannot be used as a means to “block the normal course of court proceedings, including court-ordered discovery.”
On July 25, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) issued a press release announcing a notice of proposed rulemaking that would apply to students who qualify for loan discharges in circumstances where a borrower was significantly misled or defrauded by the higher education institution they attended. Provisions under the proposed Institutional Accountability regulations include:
- instituting a “borrower defense to repayment adjudication process that is clear, consistent and fair to borrowers who were harmed by institutional misconduct”;
- replacing the existing state standard for adjudicating claims with a federal standard to provide a more expeditious review of student claims;
- encouraging students to seek remedies directly from institutions when misrepresentation has occurred;
- expanding the “closed school loan discharge” eligibility time period to 180 days from 120 days for students who have left an institution prior to its closure;
- ensuring that any mandatory arbitration requirements or class action lawsuits restrictions are explained in plain language to enable students to make informed enrollment decisions; and
- preventing guaranty agencies from charging borrowers a fee on defaulted loans if the loan goes into repayment within 60 days.
The Department also seeks public comment on whether borrower defense to repayment claims should be limited only to students in default instead of also allowing students to apply for forgiveness who remain in good financial standing. Additionally, the Department seeks comments on whether students should be held to a higher standard through the showing of “clear and convincing” evidence, rather than the lower legal “preponderance of the evidence” standard. The new plan would affect students who take out loans beginning July 1, 2019. Comments on the proposal are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
New Jersey Attorney General seeks to partner with Department of Education on for-profit investigations
On May 17, the New Jersey Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, sent a letter to the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, regarding concerns that the Department of Education (Department) is no longer investigating fraudulent activities at for-profit colleges. Grubir cited work that State Attorneys General did with the Department during the previous administration regarding these investigations and noted that the cooperation between his office and the Department has “ground to a halt.” The letter concludes with Grubir requesting the Department continue several investigations that are in progress and offers to assist in sharing information and supplementing resources or, if the Department chooses not to pursue the investigations, to allow the New Jersey Attorney General to “pick up where [the Department] leave[s] off.”
Court orders Department of Education to cease collection efforts on student loans used for defunct for-profit school
On May 25, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted in part a preliminary injunction barring the U.S. Department of Education (Department) from continuing collection efforts on student loans used for programs at a now defunct for-profit college. The for-profit school closed in 2015 after a federal fraud investigation by the Department. The decision results from a December 2017 putative class action filed by former students of the school against the Department. The complaint alleged the Department violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the Privacy Act of 1974 by its December 2017 announcement that it would use an “average earnings” metric to determine what to charge students for the value of the education they received at the college. According to the former students, the previous policy—which measured the job placement rate of graduates—would have provided full loan forgiveness for the federal student loans used for the defunct school. In response to the students’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court granted the students’ request to prevent the Department from using the “average earnings” metric, but denied the motion to require the Department to use the previous job placement metric. Additionally, among other things, the judge denied the students’ request to order the Department to remove all negative credit reporting but did order the Department to cease collection efforts on the loans.
Department of Education plans to use servicers, not private debt collectors, to assist delinquent borrowers
On May 23, the Department of Education (Department) affirmed plans to begin using “‘enhanced servicers’ to assist delinquent borrowers prior to default” instead of private debt collection agencies. The affirmation was made in a reply brief supporting the Department’s motion to dismiss an action filed by collection agencies in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that challenged the Department’s decision to award contracts to two private debt collectors. The Department argues in the reply brief that the challenge is moot because the Department cancelled the solicitation under which the contracts were awarded to pursue a new collection plan using “enhanced servicers.” According to the brief, the new collection approach will “place a greater emphasis on customer service and early outreach to address delinquencies with a full range of early options for borrowers.”
Department of Education, Veterans Affairs team up to simplify student loan discharge process for disabled veterans
On April 16, the U.S. Department of Education announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to identify disabled student loan borrowers who qualify for debt forgiveness. Eligible veterans with federal student loans or aid through the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant Program that are identified as a match on the National Student Loan Data System and the VA database will be notified of their potential eligibility in the mail and will receive a Total and Permanent Disability Discharge application.
Department of Education restores accreditor’s federal recognition pending review of its 2016 petition
On April 3, Department of Education (Department) Secretary, Betsey DeVos restored the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools’ (ACICS) status as a federally recognized accrediting agency, effective as of December 12, 2016. The order follows the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s March 23, 2018 remand of the former Secretary’s December 2016 decision withdrawing recognition. The order states that while federal recognition is restored, the Department will review ACICS’ January 2016 petition to determine whether continued recognition is warranted. As previously covered by InfoBytes, a coalition of state Attorneys General urged the Department to reject ACICS’ application to regain recognition, citing to what the Attorneys General called “ACICS’ systemic accreditation failures.”
Student loan servicer seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to resolve dispute concerning preemption of state law
On April 4, a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicer (servicer) that services federal student loans on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education (Department) filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Connecticut Department of Banking and its banking commissioner (together, the Connecticut Defendants), and the Department, seeking a judicial determination that the federal Privacy Act of 1974 (Privacy Act) preempts Connecticut law requiring the servicer to disclose certain records containing confidential information about its student loan borrowers to the state, along with data related to borrower complaints, or risk revocation of its state servicer’s license. In addition, the servicer seeks injunctive relief against the Connecticut Defendants to prevent the enforcement of state law in contravention of the Privacy Act and revocation of the servicer’s license.
In support of the injunctive relief sought, the servicer cites several irreparable harms, including (i) the potential termination of its federal loan servicing contract; (ii) the revocation of its license to service, which would adversely affect approximately 100,000 student borrowers in the state, and (iii) the potential impact on loan servicing arrangements that the servicer has with “dozens of private lenders doing business in Connecticut.”
As previously covered in InfoBytes, on March 12 Department Secretary Betsy DeVos published an Interpretation that asserted the position that state “regulation of the servicing of Direct Loans” is preempted because it “impedes uniquely Federal interests,” and state regulation of the servicing of loan under the Federal Family Education Loan Program “is preempted to the extent that it undermines uniform administration of the program.” However, last month—as discussed in InfoBytes—a bipartisan coalition of 30 state Attorneys General released a letter urging Congress to reject Section 493E(d) of the Higher Education Act reauthorization—H.R. 4508, known as the “PROSPER Act”—which would prohibit states from “overseeing, licensing, or addressing certain state law violations by companies that originate, service, or collect on student loans.” The states expressed a concern that, if enacted, the law would preempt state consumer protection laws for student borrowers and constitute “an all-out assault on states’ rights and basic principles of federalism.”