Testimony at the Statehouse on proposed changes to Ohio’s Debt Adjuster’s Act

I recently testified at a hearing in the Ohio Statehouse regarding a proposed bill that would expand regulation of debt adjusters, but would eliminate fee caps that could be charged by these entities.  While the updated definition would provide needed clarity to the law, removing the fee cap would harm consumers.

Here is my testimony:

Chairman Dever, Vice Chairman Sprague, Ranking Member Smith, and Members of the House Financial Institutions, Housing, & Urban Development Committee:

My name is Emily White, I am an attorney with the Dann Law Firm where I represent consumers and student loan borrowers. Prior to joining the Dann Law Firm, I represented low income consumers as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and I have also authored a chapter on Student Loan Law in Baldwin’s Ohio Consumer Law.

House Bill 182 brings welcome clarity to the definition of debt adjuster, but it also includes a problematic provision that would eliminate an important substantive consumer protection, a cap on fees charged by debt adjusters imposed by current law.

The debt adjustment industry has a history of unscrupulous individuals and companies targeting desperate consumers hoping to avoid collections or bankruptcy. Some debt adjustment programs have made misleading claims about their ability to negotiate with creditors for more favorable terms or debt relief, failed to make payments on behalf of consumers, and charged excessive fees for their services. To be sure, there are some legitimate non-profits and other entities helping consumers manage their debts and budget. However, there are also many predatory operators who have evaded consumer protection laws by claiming that their services are exempt from regulation.

HB 182 would update the definition of debt adjuster to cover not only entities engaged in debt management, but also entities and individuals engaged in the business of offering debt reduction, elimination, or repayment plans. The revised definition would eliminate a potential loophole from coverage and bring the definition of debt adjustment in line with the 2010 amendments in the Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule.

Ohio borrowers would benefit from HB 182’s expanded definition of debt adjuster. In my practice defending consumers in foreclosure and student loan debt collection actions, I have had a number of clients who have fallen for mortgage modification or student loan forgiveness scams. These debt adjustment schemes typically include both misleading promises and grossly inflated fees. One of my clients was recently charged $600 for what she thought was a student loan forgiveness program, but in reality all she received was an application for loan consolidation and income based repayment that she could have received for free from her loan servicer. Similarly, I have represented homeowners who have been charged exorbitant fees simply to complete a loan modification application. Under HB 182, many of these entities would be appropriately regulated as debt adjusters. HB 182 would also eliminate some important protections for Ohio consumers. Currently, the law imposes sensible caps on fees that can be charged by debt adjusters for initial consultation and for debt adjustment services. However, HB 182 would exempt from fee caps any debt adjuster who is “operating in compliance with federal regulations” including the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule. Unlike the state statute, federal law only regulates the disclosure of fees, and imposes no substantive limits on the fees a debt adjuster may charge. Under the new exemption proposed by HB 182, a debt adjustor could theoretically charge unlimited fees to desperate consumers, so long as the fees were disclosed. The current state law fee cap does not conflict with, but rather appropriately complements and strengthens federal regulations of debt adjusters.

In sum, Ohio consumers would be best protected by clarifying the definition of debt adjusters while maintaining current state limits on fees that may be charged by debt adjusters.

Resources for former ITT students in Ohio

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland will be hosting brief advice clinics for former ITT students who have questions about their legal rights following ITT’s closure.  I am looking forward to participating in the October 22 clinic.  To sign up for the clinic, contact Legal Aid:  https://lasclev.org/09162016-2/

A number of Ohio colleges have stepped up to offer options to former students seeking advice about their options to continue their education.  A list of upcoming events can be found in the Plain Dealer:  http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/09/community_colleges_offer_infor.htmlshutterstock_300989600

Dropped class?  You may still owe your school.

Medical problems.  Roommate issues.  Academic difficulty.  There are many reasons college students drop out of class in the middle of the semester.  Depending on the circumstances, you may be entitled to a refund of part of your tuition, or you may find yourself owing a debt to your school or the federal government.

Under federal law, a college is required to provide a partial refund of federal student loans when a student drops out at or before the halfway point of the term. The refund is based on the school’s refund policy, but federal law requires that some refund must be provided if the student withdrew before sixty percent of the course or term was completed.  If you took out a student loan to cover costs and the school failed to provide a refund, you may be eligible to apply for an unpaid refund discharge of all or part of your student loan.

However, while you might be entitled to a refund of all or part of your student loan, you may have to repay grant money.  A Pell Grant must always be repaid if a student drops out less than halfway through the semester, no matter what the reason.  A Pell Grant overpayment must be repaid to either the school or the federal government, and the student will be ineligible for student aid until the overpayment is resolved.  You may also owe tuition or fees directly to the school if this was part of the enrollment agreement.

If you do decide to withdraw, you should notify the school.  Although you may still qualify for an unpaid refund discharge if you withdraw without notification, letting the school know you are withdrawing reduces the chance of an unpaid refund and eliminates any question about your last day of attendance.

Student Loan Disability Discharge: Is it right for you?

The U.S. Department of Education has streamlined the process for individuals with disabilities to apply for a discharge of their student loans, and the agency is getting the word out to more people who may be eligible.  But this discharge option might not be a good fit for everyone who is eligible.

The student loan disability discharge is available to individuals who are “totally and permanently disabled.”  You may notice that this is the same standard used by Social Security to determine eligibility for disability benefits.  Yet, until 2013, the Department of Education imposed cumbersome requirements to apply and demonstrate eligibility.  Now, most individuals who are eligible for social security disability benefits are also eligible for a student loan discharge, provided that their medical review period is between 5 and 7 years.  Under this policy change, disability determinations by the Veteran’s Administration will also be recognized.  The U.S. Department of Education has recently made efforts to identify and reach out to potentially eligible individuals.

But the disability discharge comes with some significant strings attached. 

First, the loan could be reinstated if the individual has significant employment earnings following the discharge.  After the discharge is granted, there is a three year monitoring period where the U.S Department of Education watches to see if the individual is earning income.  If a person earns more than 100% of the poverty level for a family of two, regardless of household size, within the monitoring period, then the loans will be reinstated.  In Ohio, this limit is currently $16,090 per year.

Second, the discharge can make it difficult for individuals with disabilities to go back to school to get training for a new line of work.  Once a loan has been discharged because of disability, the individual must obtain a doctor’s certification in order to become eligible for a new loan.  Vocational rehabilitation services may be available to pay for schooling, but a disability discharge can complicate the process.

These rules have some logic—if an individual can still earn money, then he or she should be able to repay their student loans.  Also, if an individual has obtained a discharge of loans due to inability to work due to disability, it makes sense to require a doctor’s certification that the disability will pose a barrier to training in a new field. 

Unfortunately, the rules also have the effect of positively discouraging individuals with disabilities from seeking retraining, employment and earnings opportunities.  For other federal programs, including Social Security, and Medicaid, Congress has created work incentives to remove barriers to retraining and work for individuals with disabilities.  These incentives recognize that while individuals with disabilities area capable of working with appropriate accommodations and workplace supports, it may be necessary to pursue different career options and it is often more difficult for individuals with disabilities to find a keep a good job.  Consequently, for student loan borrowers with disabilities, it may make more sense to wait to return to work until after the three year monitoring period is over, to avoid the risk of having student loans reinstated after a failed work attempt.

If you are wondering whether you should apply for a disability discharge, contact Emily to schedule an appointment to discuss your concerns.