Bankruptcy Judge Robert Berger issued an opinion in 2016 that deserves to be better known than it is. Although the substance of Judge Berger’s decision focused on an arcane provision of bankruptcy law, it also contains a trenchant summary of the misery that has been inflicted on millions of Americans by the federal student loan program.
In re Engen concerns Mark and Maureen Engen, a married couple who filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13. Mr. and Mrs. Engen submitted a plan to pay creditors about $5,000 a month over five years. Under their plan, the Engens would completely pay off the first mortgage on their home, a car loan, and state and federal taxes. In addition, the Engens would make payments to nonsecured debtors who would only receive partial repayment.
In their plan, the Engens categorized their student-loan debt as a separate class of unsecured creditors and proposed to pay off this debt completely (without interest) before making payments on other unsecured claims (p. 529). The trustee in the Engens’ case objected to giving student loans preferential treatment.
In a well-reasoned opinion, Judge Berger approved the Engens’ repayment plan over the trustee’s objection and explained why it was appropriate to categorize student loans as a separate class of unsecured debt.
First of all, Judge Berger explained, student-loan debt is a particularly onerous debt because it is quite difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. Bankrupt debtors must file an adversary proceeding to discharge their student loans, and “[t]his bankruptcy litigation is sufficiently expensive and . . . so demanding, that debtors rarely even try to have student loan debt discharged” (p. 531, internal punctuation and citation omitted).
Indeed, a debtor’s attempt to discharge student-loan debt is generally “an exercise in futility,” with debtors forced to overcome what amounts to an “assumption of criminality” in order to obtain relief (p. 57, internal citation omitted).
In Judge Berger’s opinion, the hardships associated with student-loan debt justify treating it as a separate classification in a Chapter 13 repayment plan. In fact, in some instances, lumping student loans with other unsecured debt would cause debtors to owe more on their student loans after bankruptcy than before they filed for bankruptcy relief.
Judge Berger then turned to an extended discussion of the pernicious quality of student-loan debt in the United States. Student loans, he observed, have caused many college graduates to delay marriage, defer car purchases, postpone home ownership, and put off saving for retirement. Student debt is becoming a growing concern for older Americans, with more than a quarter of student loans held by debtors age 65-74 in default.
Judge Berger went on to articulate the grave harm suffered by distressed student-loan debtors who are unable to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. “Nondischargeable student loans may create a virtual debtors’ prison,” he wrote, “one without physical containment but assuredly a prison of emotional confinement” (p. 550).
Finally, Judge Berger ended his opinion with the forceful argument that bankruptcy relief benefits not just the distressed debtor; it also benefits society.
It is this Court’s opinion that many consumer bankruptcies are filed by desperate individuals who are financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted. Sometimes lost in the discussion that the bankruptcy discharge provides a fresh start to honest but unfortunate debtors is that, perhaps as importantly, it provides a commensurate benefit to society and the economy. People are freed from emotional and financial burdens to become more energetic, healthy participants. (p. 550)
The Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019 is now pending in Congress. This legislation, if adopted, will remove the “undue hardship” provision from the Bankruptcy Code and allow overburdened debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured consumer debt. Supporters of this bill should cite Judge Berger’s opinion in In re Engen, because it expresses one federal judge’s view that the “undue hardship” provision in the Bankruptcy Code has created “a prison of emotional confinement” that burdens not only student debtors but our society as a whole.
In re Engen, 561 B.R.523 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016).