By Ryan C. Wood
On July 15, 2014, I wrote an article about tuition credits and a case of first impression since the enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA) in the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California regarding whether tuition credits are excepted from discharge or not discharged. On March 27, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed bankruptcy court’s ruling that tuition credits are not excepted from discharge, BAP No. NC-14-1336-PaJuTa, and not excepted from discharge pursuant to Section 523(a)(8)(A)(ii). Ms. Christoff received tuition credits from a for-profit education company named Institute of Imaginal Studies dba Meridian University prior to filing for bankruptcy protection. This is a blow to the for-profit educator sector and a little consolation prize for students with tuition credits. Other for-profit colleges have come under fire recently for their lending practices and the job prospects of their students. At least a student with a tuition credit can discharge that part of their debt when filing for bankruptcy protection.
The debtor, Tarra Nichole Christoff, filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code on April 19, 2013, in the Northern District of California, Bankruptcy Case No. 13-10808-DM-7. As part of her petition Ms. Christoff listed a general unsecured debt of around $11,000 owed to Meridian. Meridian proceeded to file an adversary proceeding (lawsuit within the main bankruptcy case) to determine whether the tuition credits and resulting loan from Meridian to Ms. Christoff was excepted from discharge pursuant to Bankruptcy Code Section 523(a)(8)(A)(ii).
Section 523(a)(8)(A)(ii) of the Bankruptcy Code provides:
(a) A discharge under section 727, 1141, 1228 (a), 1228 (b), or 1328 (b) of this title does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt—
(8) unless excepting such debt from discharge under this paragraph would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents, for—
(ii) an obligation to repay funds received as an educational benefit, scholarship, or stipend;
After Meridian filed a motion for summary judgment in the adversary proceeding the Bankruptcy Court denied the motion for summary judgment and entered a judgment in favor of Ms. Christoff. The Honorable Dennis Montali starts the memorandum of decision: “In addressing the issue court must consider two powerful competing principles: the need to give the honest debtor a fresh start and the seemingly endless desire of Congress to except more and more student loans from discharge absent undue hardship.” Meridian’s bankruptcy lawyers argued that Ms. Christoff received a loan from Meridian and the loan proceeds went directly to Meridian and Ms. Christoff then received the education. Ms. Christoff’s bankruptcy attorneys argued she never received any funds from Meridian or anyone else. The Honorable Judge Dennis Montali in the adversary proceeding held that no funds were received even though the transaction between Meridian and the Ms. Christoff resulted in loans for repayment of tuition credits to Meridian. Therefore, the tuition creditors are not excepted from discharge. The decision in the adversary case was immediately appealed to the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for review.
Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellant Panel Affirmation of the Bankruptcy Court’s Ruling
Ms. Christoff, the debtor, was awarded $6,000 in financial aid to pay for some of her tuition. She signed a promissory note. She did not actually receive any funds from Meridian though. Instead, what she received was a tuition credit. The terms of the note required her to pay back the funds at $350 per month after she finishes her coursework or she withdraws from Meridian along with 9% interest to be compounded monthly. She received another $5,000 in tuition credit the following year after signing a promissory note with the same terms. She withdrew from Meridian after completing all her coursework and clinical hours but before she completed her dissertation.
In interpreting the funds received requirement in Section 528(a)(8)(A)(ii), the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel agreed with the bankruptcy court and held Meridian simply agreed to be paid the tuition later and it did not receive any funds from a third party financing source. The key here is the language in Section 528(a)(8)(A)(ii) that grants exception to discharge for “an obligation to repay funds received.” That means funds received by the plain language of the Bankruptcy Code. The long stand principle is that exceptions to discharge should be confined to those plainly expressed. Hawkins v. Franchise Tax Bd. of Cal., 769 F.3d 662, 666 (9th Cir. 2014) The plain language of this prong of the statute (Section 523(a)(8)) requires that a debtor receive actual funds in order to obtain a nondischargeable educational benefit.” Cazenovia Coll. v. Renshaw (In re Renshaw), 229 B.R. 552, 555 n.5 (2d Cir. BAP 1999), aff’d, 222 F.3d 82 (2d Cir. 2000)) Again, no funds were received so Section 528(a)(8)(A)(ii) did not except from discharge the tuition credits Ms. Christoff received.