The Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC)—an organization established by former CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman—recently published an article examining the Department of Education’s oversight of “lead generators.”  Lead generators are outside entities that help for-profit colleges manage “pre-enrollment activities” such as “recruiting and advising students,” “determining eligibility for federal aid,” and “delivering the Title IV funds.”  The article highlights state and FTC enforcement actions against lead generators and suggests that these entities qualify as third-party servicers under Department of Education regulations.

The article characterizes the Department of Education’s current oversight of the industry as “haphazard and wholly inadequate.”  It calls on the Department to (1) treat lead generators as third-party servicers, (2) require that schools disclose contracts with lead generators, and (3) compel lead generators to conduct annual compliance audits.

In addition, the article urges Congress and the Department’s Inspectors General to investigate why the Department has “failed to hold these lead generators and schools” accountable.  Finally, it asks that Congress amend the Higher Education Act to eliminate much of the Department’s discretion with regards to oversight of third-party servicing.

Institutions and third-party servicers are jointly and severally liable for a servicer’s violations of the Higher Education Act.  See 34 C.F.R. § 668.25(c)(3), (d)(2)(ii).  Thus, a decision by the Department of Education or Congress characterizing lead generators as third-party servicers would likely carry a significant compliance burden for both lead generators and contracting schools.

As we reported, the Department of Education announced earlier this month that it would begin implementing its “borrower defense” final rule which was issued in November 2016 by providing discharges of federal student loans made to any borrowers who, in addition to other conditions, could not complete his or her program of study because the borrower’s school closed.  The final rule was the subject of litigation that resulted in an October 2018 ruling requiring the Department to implement the rule.

In addition to requiring the discharges, the final rule includes a ban on all pre-dispute arbitration agreements for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act.  Both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements are prohibited by the rule, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses.  In addition, schools are prohibited from relying on any pre-dispute arbitration or other agreement to block a borrower from asserting a borrower defense claim in a class action lawsuit until the court has denied class certification and the time for any interlocutory review has elapsed or the review has been resolved.  The prohibition applies retroactively to pre-dispute arbitration or other agreements addressing class actions that were entered into before the final rule’s effective date.

In August 2018, following negotiated rulemaking, the ED published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would rescind the final rule and replace it with the “Institutional Accountability regulations” contained in the proposal.  Among the major changes to the final rule that would be made by the proposal is the removal of the arbitration ban.

Although the October 2018 ruling requires the Department to implement the final rule, the Department has not yet indicated whether it will enforce the arbitration ban, such as by requiring schools to retroactively cancel arbitration agreements in existing contracts.  Politico reported last week however that Department Spokeswoman Liz Hill has indicated that guidance from the Department on mandatory arbitration agreements will be forthcoming.

 

 

 

In a December 13 posting, the Department of Education announced that on December 14, it would begin sending emails to borrowers “to inform them that the company that handles billing and other services related to their federal student loans will discharge some or all of the borrower’s loans within the next 30-90 days.”

The discharges are required by Department’s “borrower defense” final rule which was issued in November 2016 and the subject of litigation that resulted in an October 2018 ruling requiring the Department to implement the rule.  It provides for the automatic discharge of federal student loans made to borrowers who, in addition to other conditions, could not complete his or her program of study because the borrower’s school closed.  Borrowers are also entitled to refunds of payments made on the loans.

According to media reports, the Department is expected to discharge $150 million in federal student loans owed by approximately 15,000 borrowers, with about half of the borrowers consisting of students who attended Corinthian Colleges.

 

Earlier this week, Judge Randolph D. Moss of the D.C. federal district court heard oral argument on the renewed motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools (CAPPS) seeking to preliminary enjoin the arbitration ban and class action waiver provisions in the “borrower defense” final rule (Final Rule) issued by the Dept. of Education in November 2016 pending the resolution of the lawsuit filed by CAPPS against the ED and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to overturn the Final Rule.

Shortly before the Final Rule’s initial July 1, 2017 effective date, CAPPS filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to which the ED responded by issuing a stay of the Final Rule under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  The Section 705 stay was followed by the ED’s issuance of an interim final rule delaying the effective date until July 1, 2018 and the promulgation of a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019 (Final Rule Delay).

On September 12, 2018, Judge Moss issued an opinion and order in Bauer v. DeVos, another case challenging the Final Rule in which he ruled that the ED’s rationale for issuing the Section 705 stay was arbitrary and capricious and that in issuing the Final Rule Delay, the ED had improperly invoked the good cause exception to the Higher Education Act’s negotiated rulemaking requirement.  The case consolidated two separate lawsuits filed after the ED’s issuance of the Section 705 stay, with one filed by two individual plaintiffs and the other by a coalition of nineteen states and the District of Columbia.  Both lawsuits were subsequently amended to challenge not only the Section 705 stay but also the other actions taken by the ED to delay the Final Rule’s effective date.  While Judge Moss vacated the Section 705 stay, he stayed the vacatur until 5 p.m. on October 12, 2018.

After the ED filed a notice with the court in June 2017 regarding its initial delay of the Final Rule’s effective date until July 1, 2018, CAPPS withdrew its motion for preliminary injunction.  Following the court’s decision in Bauer, CAPPS filed its renewed motion for a preliminary injunction.  Oral argument on the renewed motion was held on October 9, 2018.  According to a Politico report, Judge Moss, who was appointed by President Obama under whose administration the Final Rule was promulgated, was skeptical about arguments made by CAPPs that its member colleges would be irreparably harmed if the Final Rule took effect, questioning whether some potential harm to the schools was too speculative or premature for him to address.

The Final Rule broadly addresses the ability of a student to assert a school’s misconduct as a defense to repayment of a federal student loan.  It includes a ban on all pre-dispute arbitration agreements for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act (HEA) and a new federal standard for evaluating borrower defenses to repayment of Direct Loans (i.e. federal student loans made by the ED).  Both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements are prohibited by the rule, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses, and schools are prohibited from relying on any pre-dispute arbitration or other agreement to block a borrower from asserting a borrower defense claim in a class action lawsuit until the court has denied class certification and the time for any interlocutory review has elapsed or the review has been resolved.  The prohibition applies retroactively to pre-dispute arbitration or other agreements addressing class actions entered into before July 1, 2017.

On August 31, 2018, following negotiated rulemaking, the ED published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would rescind the Final Rule and replace it with the “Institutional Accountability regulations” contained in the proposal.  Among the major changes to the Final Rule that would be made by the proposal is the removal of the Final Rule’s ban on the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements and class action waivers.

As of now, Judge Moss’s ruling in Bauer creates the possibility that the Final Rule could become effective as soon as 5:00 p.m. tomorrow.  It seems likely that there will be further developments in the CAPPS litigation before that time.

 

The Department of Education has issued a proposal that would rescind the “Borrower Defense” final rule issued by the ED in November 2016 and replace it with the “Institutional Accountability regulations” contained in the proposal.  Among the major changes to the final rule that would be made by the proposal is the removal of the final rule’s ban on the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements  and class action waivers for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act (HEA).  Comments on the proposal are due by August 30, 2018.

Although the final rule had an initial effective date of July 1, 2017, there has been a series of postponements of the effective date.  A final rule published by the ED in February 2018 established July 1, 2019 as the current effective date.  In the supplementary information accompanying the proposal, the ED indicates that the negotiated rulemaking committee it established to develop proposed revisions to the 2016 final rule did not reach a consensus on the proposal.

The proposal includes the following significant changes to the 2016 final rule:

  • The final rule created a new federal standard for a “borrower defense” asserted with respect to Direct Loans and loans repaid by Direct Consolidated Loans.  A Direct Loan is a federal student loan made by the ED under the Direct Loan Program and a Direct Consolidated Loan is a federal student loan made by the ED under the Direct Loan Program that repays multiple Direct Loans or other specified loans.  A “borrower defense” includes a defense to repayment of amounts owed on such loans and a right to recover amounts previously collected on such loans.  Before 2015, the ED interpreted the Higher Education Act (HEA) to only allow a borrower to raise a “borrower defense” as a defense to repayment in a collection action.  The final rule codified the ED’s new 2015 interpretation that also allowed a borrower to raise a borrower defense in an affirmative claim for loan relief.  In the proposal, the ED seeks comment on whether it should return to its pre-2015 interpretation and only allow “defensive” claims from defaulted borrowers who are in a collections proceeding or accept both “defensive” and “affirmative” claims, including claims from borrowers still in repayment.
  • Prior to the 2016 final rule, a borrower defense could only be asserted based on an act or omission of a school that would give rise to a cause of action against the school under applicable state law.  The final rule created a new federal standard for Direct Loans disbursed after the final rule’s effective date under which a borrower defense could be a non-default, favorable contested judgment against a school, a school’s breach of contract, or a substantial misrepresentation made by a school on which the borrower reasonably relied to his or her detriment when deciding to attend or continue attending the school or deciding to take a Direct Loan.  The proposal would create a different federal standard for defenses to repayment based upon misrepresentations and would remove a breach of contract or judgment as a basis for borrower defense relief.  Instead, a judgment or breach could be considered evidence of a misrepresentation to the extent it bears on an act or omission related to the educational services provided.  Under the proposed federal standard, a defense to payment could only be based on a misrepresentation on which the borrower reasonably relied in deciding to obtain a Direct Loan, or a loan repaid by a Direct Consolidation Loan, for the student to enroll or continue enrollment in a program at the school and the borrower suffered financial harm as a result of the school’s misrepresentation.  A misrepresentation would be defined as a statement, act, or omission by a school to a borrower that is false, misleading, or deceptive, and made with knowledge of its false, misleading, or deceptive nature or with reckless disregard for the truth, and that directly and clearly relates to the making of a Direct Loan, or a loan repaid by a Direct Consolidation Loan, for enrollment at the school or to the provision of educational services for which the loan was made.
  • Under the 2016 final rule, a borrower defense claim based on a substantial misrepresentation could be asserted at any time but, to recover amounts previously collected on a Direct Loan, it had to be asserted not later than six years after the borrower discovered, or reasonably could have discovered, the information constituting the substantial misrepresentation.  The proposal would allow a borrower to assert a defense to payment at any time once the loan is in collections, including to recover amounts previously collected on a Direct Loan.  If the ED decides to continue to allow affirmative borrower defense claims, it proposes to only allow such claims to be filed within three years of the end date of the borrower’s enrollment at the school alleged to have made the misrepresentation.
  • The 2016 final rule bans both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses, and class action waivers for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the HEA.  In adopting the final rule, the ED rejected the argument that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) barred the ED from including a ban on class action waivers or mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements.  When the final rule was adopted, we expressed our strongly-held view that the ED’s position was incorrect and that the final rule’s arbitration provisions were preempted by the FAA.  In stark contrast, the proposal would allow schools to use pre-dispute arbitration agreements or class action waivers as a condition to enrollment.  Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 2018 decision in Epic Systems, the ED states that it believes “the Supreme Court’s recent affirmation of the Federal policy in favor of arbitration may warrant a different approach to these regulations.”  The ED also references Congress’ disapproval of the CFPB’s arbitration rule pursuant to the Congressional Review Act and states that “[i]n light of Congress’ clear action, the Department believes a change in its position to align with the strong Federal policy in favor of arbitration is appropriate.”  The ED’s supplementary information describes the potential advantages of arbitration, including that it can be quicker than litigation and “allow borrowers to obtain greater relief than they would in a consumer class action case where attorneys often benefit most.”  The proposal would require schools using pre-dispute arbitration agreements or class action waivers to satisfy the following conditions:
    • The school must make available on its website where information about admissions and costs is presented (which cannot solely be an intranet website), a plain language disclosure that the agreement or waiver is a condition of enrollment.
    • As part of entrance counseling, a school must provide: a description of its dispute resolution process that the borrower has agreed to pursue as a condition of enrollment, including the name and contact information for the individual or office that the borrower can contact regarding a dispute; a written description of how and when the agreement or waiver applies, how the borrower enters into the arbitration process or, for class action waivers, alternative processes the borrower can pursue to seek redress; and who to contact with borrower questions.

The proposal also includes changes relating to an array of other subjects such as: the charging of collection costs to defaulted borrowers by guaranty agencies; the capitalization of interest on loans sold by guaranty agencies after the completion of loan rehabilitation; financial responsibility provisions that establish the conditions or events that have or may have an adverse material effect on a school’s financial condition and which warrant the school’s provision of a letter of credit or other financial protection to the ED; the circumstances under which borrowers can qualify for a closed school discharge; and actions by the ED against schools to collect loan amounts discharged based on successful borrower defense claims or to obtain reimbursement of discharge amounts repaid to borrowers by the ED based on such claims.