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27.6 Cases

Dischargeability of Student Loans under Chapter 7

In re Zygarewicz

423 B.R. 909 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Cal. 2010)

MCMANUS, BANKRUPTCY JUDGE.

Angela Zygarewicz, a chapter 7 debtor and the plaintiff in this adversary proceeding, borrowed 16 government-guaranteed student [sic] loans totaling $81,429. The loans have been assigned to Educational Credit Management Corporation (“ECMC”). By September 2009, the accrual of interest on these student loans had caused the debt to balloon to more than $146,000. The debtor asks the court to declare that these student loans were discharged in bankruptcy.

The Bankruptcy Code provides financially distressed debtors with a fresh start by discharging most of their pre-petition debts.…However, under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8), there is a presumption that educational loans extended by or with the aid of a governmental unit or nonprofit institution are nondischargeable unless the debtor can demonstrate that their repayment would be an undue hardship. See [Citation]. This exception to a bankruptcy discharge ensures that student loans, which are typically extended solely on the basis of the student’s future earnings potential, cannot be discharged by recent graduates who then pocket all of the future benefits derived from their education. See [Citation].

The debtor bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to a discharge of the student loan. See [Citation]. That is, the debtor must prove that repayment of student loans will cause an undue hardship.

The Bankruptcy Code does not define “the undue hardship.” Courts interpreting section 523(a)(8), however, have concluded that undue hardship [and] is something more than “garden-variety hardship.” [Citation.] Only cases involving “real and substantial” hardship merit discharges. See [Citation.]

The Ninth Circuit has adopted a three-part test to guide courts in their attempts to determine whether a debtor will suffer an undue hardship is required to repay a student loan:

  • First, the debtor must establish “that she cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a ‘minimal’ standard of living for herself and her dependents if forced to repay the loans.”…
  • Second, the debtor must show “that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans.”…
  • The third prong requires “that the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.…”

(Pena, citing Brunner v. N.Y. State Higher Educ. Servs. Corp., [Citation]).

Debtor must satisfy all three parts of the Brunner test before her student loans can be discharged. Failure to prove any of the three prongs will defeat a debtor’s case.

When this bankruptcy case was filed in September 2005, the debtor was a single woman and had no dependents. She is 39 years old.

Schedule I reported that the debtor was unemployed. The debtor’s responses to the Statement of Financial Affairs revealed that she had received $5,500 in income during 2005 prior to the filing of the petition. Evidence at trial indicated that after the petition was filed, the debtor found work and earned a total of $9,424 in 2005. In 2004 and 2003, she earned $13,994 and $17,339, respectively.

Despite this modest income, the debtor did not immediately file an adversary proceeding to determine the dischargeability of her student loans. It was almost three years after the entry of her chapter 7 discharge ‘on January 3, 2006 that the debtor reopened her chapter 7 case in order to pursue this adversary proceeding.’

In her complaint, the debtor admits that after she received a discharge, she found part-time work with a church and later took a full-time job as a speech therapist. During 2006, the debtor earned $20,009 and in 2007 she earned $37,314. Hence, while it is clear the debtor’s income was very modest in the time period immediately prior to her bankruptcy petition, her financial situation improved during her bankruptcy case.

The court cannot conclude based on the evidence of the debtor’s financial circumstances up to the date of the discharge, that she was unable to maintain a minimal standard of living if she was required to repay her students [sic] loans.

However, in January 2007, the debtor was injured in an automobile accident. Her injuries eventually halted the financial progress she had been making and eventually prevented her from working. She now subsists on social security disability payments.

The circumstance creating the debtor’s hardship, the automobile accident, occurred after her chapter 7 petition was filed, indeed, approximately one year after her discharge was entered. The debtor is maintaining that this post-petition, post-discharge circumstance warrants a declaration that her student loans were discharged effective from the petition date.

When must the circumstances creating a debtor’s hardship arise: before the bankruptcy case is filed; after the case if filed but prior to the entry of a discharge; or at anytime, including after the entry of a discharge?

The court concludes that the circumstances causing a chapter 7 debtor’s financial hardship must arise prior to the entry of the discharge. If the circumstances causing a debtor’s hardship arise after the entry of a discharge, those circumstances cannot form the basis of a determination that repayment of a student loan will be an undue hardship.…

[T]here is nothing in the Bankruptcy Code requiring that a complaint under section 523(a)(8) [to discharge student loans] be filed at any particular point in a bankruptcy case, whether it is filed under chapter 7 or 13. [Relevant Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure] permits such dischargeability complaints to be brought at any time, including after the entry of a discharge and the closing of the bankruptcy case.…

While a debtor’s decision to file an action to determine the dischargeability of a student loan is not temporally constrained, this does not mean that a debtor’s financial hardship may arise after a discharge has been entered.

[The] Coleman [case, cited by debtor] deals with the ripeness of a dispute concerning the dischargeability of a student loan. [The Ninth Circuit held that it] is ripe for adjudication at any point during the case. The Ninth Circuit did not conclude, however, that a debtor could rely upon post-discharge circumstances to establish undue hardship. In fact, the court in Coleman made clear that the debtor could take a snapshot of the hardship warranting a discharge of a student loan any time prior to discharge. [Coleman was a Chapter 13 case.]

Here, the debtor was injured in an automobile accident on January 17, 2007, almost exactly one year after her January 3, 2006 chapter 7 discharge. Because the accident had no causal link to the misfortune prompting the debtor to seek bankruptcy relief in the first instance, the accident cannot be relied on to justify the discharge of the student loans because repayment would be an undue hardship.

To hold otherwise would mean that a bankruptcy discharge is a perpetual license to discharge student loans based on events that occur years after the bankruptcy discharge is granted. If a discharged debtor suffers later financial misfortune, that debtor must consider seeking another discharge subject to the limitations imposed by [the sections of the code stipulating how often a person can petition for bankruptcy]. In the context of a second case, the debtor could then ask that the student loan be declared dischargeable under section 523(a)(8).

In this instance, the debtor is now eligible for a discharge in a chapter 13 case. Her chapter 7 petition was filed on September 19, 2005. Section 1328(f)(1) bars a chapter 13 discharge when the debtor has received a chapter 7 discharge in a case commenced in the prior four years. She would not be eligible for a chapter 7 discharge until September 19, 2013.

This is not to say that post-discharge events are irrelevant. The second and third prongs of the Pena test require the court to consider whether the circumstances preventing a debtor from repaying a student loan are likely to persist, and whether the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the student loan. Post-discharge events are relevant to these determinations because they require the court to look into the debtor’s financial future.

Unfortunately for the debtor, it is unnecessary to consider the second and third prongs because she cannot satisfy the first prong.

Case Questions

  1. What is the rationale for making the bankruptcy discharge of student loans very difficult?
  2. Petitioner argued that she should be able to use a postdischarge event (the auto accident) as a basis for establishing that she could not maintain a “minimal” standard of living, and thus she should get a retroactive discharge of her student loans. What benefit is there to her if she could successfully make the argument, given that she could—as the court noted—file for Chapter 13?
  3. The court cites the Coleman case. That was a Chapter 13 proceeding. Here were the facts: Debtor had not yet completed her payments under her five-year repayment plan, and no discharge order had yet been entered; one year into the plan, she was laid off work. She had been trying to repay her student loans for several years, and she claimed she would suffer hardship in committing to the five-year repayment plan without any guarantee that her student loan obligations would be discharged, since she was required to commit all of her disposable income to payments under the plan and would likely be forced to pursue undue hardship issue pro se upon completion of the plan.” In Coleman, the court held that Debtor could, postfiling but predischarge—one year into the five-year plan—bring up the hardship issue.

    Now, in the case here, after the auto accident, the petitioner “subsists” on Social Security disability payments, and she has almost $150,000 in debt, yet the court prohibited her from claiming a hardship discharge of student loans. Does this result really make sense? Is the court’s concern that allowing this postdischarge relief would mean “that a bankruptcy discharge is a perpetual license to discharge student loans based on events that occur years after the bankruptcy discharge is granted” well founded? Suppose it is scheduled to take thirty years to pay off student loans; in year 4, the student-borrower, now Debtor, declares Chapter 7 bankruptcy, student loans not being discharged; in year 6, the person is rendered disabled. What public policy is offended if the person is allowed to “reopen” the bankruptcy and use the postbankruptcy event as a basis for claiming a hardship discharge of student loans?

  4. The court suggests she file for Chapter 13. What if—because of timing—the petitioner was not eligible for Chapter 13? What would happen then?

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

In re Johns-Manville Corp.

36 B.R. 727 (Bkrtcy. N.Y. 1984)

Lifland, Bankruptcy Judge.

Whether an industrial enterprise in the United States is highly successful is often gauged by its “membership” in what has come to be known as the “Fortune 500”. Having attained this measure of financial achievement, Johns-Manville Corp. and its affiliated companies (collectively referred to as “Manville”) were deemed a paradigm of success in corporate America by the financial community. Thus, Manville’s filing for protection under Chapter 11 of Title 11 of the United States Code (“the Code or the Bankruptcy Code”) on August 26, 1982 (“the filing date”) was greeted with great surprise and consternation on the part of some of its creditors and other corporations that were being sued along with Manville for injuries caused by asbestos exposure. As discussed at length herein, Manville submits that the sole factor necessitating its filing is the mammoth problem of uncontrolled proliferation of asbestos health suits brought against it because of its substantial use for many years of products containing asbestos which injured those who came into contact with the dust of this lethal substance. According to Manville, this current problem of approximately 16,000 lawsuits pending as of the filing date is compounded by the crushing economic burden to be suffered by Manville over the next 20–30 years by the filing of an even more staggering number of suits by those who had been exposed but who will not manifest the asbestos-related diseases until some time during this future period (“the future asbestos claimants”). Indeed, approximately 6,000 asbestos health claims are estimated to have arisen in only the first 16 months since the filing date. This burden is further compounded by the insurance industry’s general disavowal of liability to Manville on policies written for this very purpose.

It is the propriety of the filing by Manville which is the subject of the instant decision. Four separate motions to dismiss the petition pursuant to Section 1112(b) of the Code have been lodged before this Court.…

Preliminarily, it must be stated that there is no question that Manville is eligible to be a debtor under the Code’s statutory requirements. Moreover, it should also be noted that neither Section 109 nor any other provision relating to voluntary petitions by companies contains any insolvency requirement.…Accordingly, it is abundantly clear that Manville has met all of the threshold eligibility requirements for filing a voluntary petition under the Code.…

A “principal goal” of the Bankruptcy Code is to provide “open access” to the “bankruptcy process.” [Citation.] The rationale behind this “open access” policy is to provide access to bankruptcy relief which is as “open” as “access to the credit economy.” Thus, Congress intended that “there should be no legal barrier to voluntary petitions.” Another major goal of the Code, that of “rehabilitation of debtors,” requires that relief for debtors must be “timely.” Congress declared that it is essential to both the “open access” and “rehabilitation” goals that

[i]nitiating relief should not be a death knell. The process should encourage resort to it, by debtors and creditors, that cuts short the dissipation of assets and the accumulation of debts. Belated commencement of a case may kill an opportunity for reorganization or arrangement.

Accordingly, the drafters of the Code envisioned that a financially beleaguered debtor with real debt and real creditors should not be required to wait until the economic situation is beyond repair in order to file a reorganization petition. The “Congressional purpose” in enacting the Code was to encourage resort to the bankruptcy process. This philosophy not only comports with the elimination of an insolvency requirement, but also is a corollary of the key aim of Chapter 11 of the Code, that of avoidance of liquidation. The drafters of the Code announced this goal, declaring that reorganization is more efficient than liquidation because “assets that are used for production in the industry for which they were designed are more valuable than those same assets sold for scrap.” [Citation.] Moreover, reorganization also fosters the goals of preservation of jobs in the threatened entity. [Citation.]

In the instant case, not only would liquidation be wasteful and inefficient in destroying the utility of valuable assets of the companies as well as jobs, but, more importantly, liquidation would preclude just compensation of some present asbestos victims and all future asbestos claimants. This unassailable reality represents all the more reason for this Court to adhere to this basic potential liquidation avoidance aim of Chapter 11 and deny the motions to dismiss. Manville must not be required to wait until its economic picture has deteriorated beyond salvation to file for reorganization.

Clearly, none of the justifications for declaring an abuse of the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy court announced by these courts [in various cases cited] are present in the Manville case. In Manville, it is undeniable that there has been no sham or hoax perpetrated on the Court in that Manville is a real business with real creditors in pressing need of economic reorganization. Indeed, the Asbestos Committee has belied its own contention that Manville has no debt and no real creditors by quantifying a benchmark settlement demand approaching one billion dollars for compensation of approximately 15,500 pre-petition asbestos claimants, during the course of negotiations pitched toward achieving a consensual plan. This huge asserted liability does not even take into account the estimated 6,000 new asbestos health claims which have arisen in only the first 16 months since the filing date. The number of post-filing claims increases each day as “future claims back into the present.” …

In short, Manville’s filing did not in the appropriate sense abuse the jurisdiction of this Court and it is indeed, like the debtor in [Citation], a “once viable business supporting employees and unsecured creditors [that] has more recently been burdened with judgments [and suits] that threaten to put it out of existence.” Thus, its petition must be sustained.…

In sum, Manville is a financially besieged enterprise in desperate need of reorganization of its crushing real debt, both present and future. The reorganization provisions of the Code were drafted with the aim of liquidation avoidance by great access to Chapter 11. Accordingly, Manville’s filing does not abuse the jurisdictional integrity of this Court, but rather presents the same kinds of reasons that were present in [Citation], for awaiting the determination of Manville’s good faith until it is considered…as a prerequisite to confirmation or as a part of the cadre of motions before me which are scheduled to be heard subsequently.

[A]ll four of the motions to dismiss the Manville petition are denied in their entirety.

Case Questions

  1. What did Manville want to do here, and why?
  2. How does this case demonstrate the fundamental purpose of Chapter 11 as opposed to Chapter 7 filings?
  3. The historical background here is that Manville knew from at least 1930 that asbestos—used in many industrial applications—was a deadly carcinogen, and it worked diligently for decades to conceal and obfuscate the fact. What “good faith” argument was raised by the movants in this case?

Chapter 13: What Debts Are Dischargeable?

In re Ryan

389 B.R. 710 9th Cir. BAP, (Idaho, 2008)

On July 13, 1995, Ryan was convicted of possession of an unregistered firearm under 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d) in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska. Ryan was sentenced to fifty-seven months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. In addition, Ryan was ordered to pay a fine of $7,500…, costs of prosecution in the amount of $83,420, and a special assessment of $50.00. Ryan served his sentence. He also paid the $7,500 fine. The district court, following an appellate mandate, ultimately eliminated the restitution obligation.

On April 25, 2003, Ryan filed a petition for bankruptcy relief under chapter 7 in the District of Idaho. He received his chapter 7 discharge on August 11, 2003. Shortly thereafter, Ryan filed a case under chapter 13, listing as his only obligation the amount of unpaid costs of prosecution owed to the United States (“Government”).…

Ryan completed payments under the plan, and an “Order of Discharge” was entered on October 5, 2006. The chapter 13 trustee’s final report reflected that the Government received $2,774.89 from payments made by Ryan under his plan, but a balance of $77,088.34 on the Government’s costs of prosecution claim remained unpaid. Ryan then renewed his request for determination of dischargeability. The bankruptcy court held that the unpaid portion of the Government’s claim for costs of prosecution was excepted from discharge by § 1328(a)(3). Ryan appealed.

Section 1328(a)(3) provides an exception to discharge in chapter 13 for “restitution, or a criminal fine.” It states, in pertinent part:

[A]s soon as practicable after the completion by the debtor of all payments under the plan, the court shall grant the debtor a discharge of all debts provided for by the plan or disallowed under section 502 of this title except any debt…

(3) for restitution, or a criminal fine, included in a sentence on the debtor’s conviction of a crime [.] [emphasis added].

The essential question, then, is whether these costs of prosecution constitute a “criminal fine.”

Statutory interpretation begins with a review of the particular language used by Congress in the relevant version of the law. [Citation.]

The term “criminal fine” is not defined in [Chapter 13] or anywhere else in the Bankruptcy Code. However, its use in § 1328(a)(3) implicates two important policies embedded in the Bankruptcy Code. First, in light of the objective to provide a fresh start for debtors overburdened by debts that they cannot pay, exceptions to discharge are interpreted strictly against objecting creditors and in favor of debtors. See, e.g. [Citations]. In chapter 13, this principle is particularly important because Congress adopted the liberal “superdischarge” provisions of § 1328 as an incentive to debtors to commit to a plan to pay their creditors all of their disposable income over a period of years rather than simply discharging their debts in a chapter 7 liquidation.

“[T]he dischargeability of debts in chapter 13 that are not dischargeable in chapter 7 represents a policy judgment that [it] is preferable for debtors to attempt to pay such debts to the best of their abilities over three years rather than for those debtors to have those debts hanging over their heads indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of their lives.” [Citations.]

A second, countervailing policy consideration is a historic deference, both in the Bankruptcy Code and in the administration of prior bankruptcy law, to excepting criminal sanctions from discharge in bankruptcy. Application of this policy is consistent with a general recognition that, “[t]he principal purpose of the Bankruptcy Code is to grant a ‘fresh start’ to the ‘honest but unfortunate debtor.’” [Citation] (emphasis added [in original]).

The legislative history is clear that [in its 1994 amendments to the bankruptcy law] Congress intended to overrule the result in [of a 1990 Supreme Court case so that]:…“[N]o debtor with criminal restitution obligations will be able to discharge them through any bankruptcy proceeding.”…

The imposition on a defendant of the costs of a special prosecutor is different from ordering a defendant to pay criminal fines. Costs are paid to the entity incurring the costs; criminal fines are generally paid to a special fund for victims’ compensation and assistance in the U.S. Treasury.…

To honor the principle that exceptions to discharge are to be construed narrowly in favor of debtors, particularly in chapter 13, where a broad discharge was provided by Congress as an incentive for debtors to opt for relief under that chapter rather than under chapter 7, it is not appropriate to expand the scope of the [Chapter 13] exception beyond the terms of the statute. Congress could have adopted an exception to discharge in chapter 13 that mirrored [the one in Chapter 7]. It did not do so. In contrast, under [the 2005] BAPCPA, when Congress wanted to limit the chapter 13 “superdischarge,” it incorporated exceptions to discharge from [Chapter 7] wholesale.…

As a bottom line matter, Ryan served his time and paid in full the criminal fine that was imposed as part of his sentence for conviction of possession of an unregistered firearm. The restitution obligation that was included as part of his sentence was voided. Ryan paid the Government a total of $6,331.66 to be applied to the costs of prosecution awarded as part of his criminal judgment, including $2,774.89 paid under his chapter 13 plan, leaving a balance of $77,088.34. We determine that the unpaid balance of the costs of prosecution award was covered by Ryan’s chapter 13 discharge.

Based on the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the exception to discharge included in [Chapter 13] for “restitution, or a criminal fine, included in a sentence on the debtor’s conviction of a crime” does not cover costs of prosecution included in such a sentence, and we REVERSE.

Case Questions

  1. What is the rationale for making some things dischargeable under Chapter 13 that are not dischargeable under Chapter 7?
  2. What is the difference between “criminal restitution” (which in 1994 Congress said could not get discharged at all) and “the costs of prosecution”?
  3. Why did the court decide that Ryan’s obligation to pay “costs of prosecution” was not precluded by the limits on Chapter 13 bankruptcies imposed by Congress?