In 2012 the Utah State Bar Pro Bono Commission created a project called “The Learned Hand.” (Learned Hand is a legendary federal judge from New York). The program was designed to encourage Utah attorneys to take more pro-bono cases in areas of law that they specialize. Our office readily agreed to participate in this program.
Out of this program I met an elderly woman named Lois. Lois was in her late 60’s and had co-signed with several of her children so that they could obtain student loans to enhance their education. Eventually, her children stopped paying on the loans and the loan companies started to come after Lois. Lois’ was a single woman living entirely off of social security. Our office agreed to help Lois file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection on a pro-bono basis.
As most people know, student loans typically cannot be included in a bankruptcy discharge (meaning that bankruptcy does not typically eliminate student loans). In order to receive a discharge of student loans, you actually have to file a lawsuit as a part of your bankruptcy case called an ‘adversary proceeding.’ In this proceeding, the debtor must prove that it would be an undue hardship for the student loan to be excepted from the bankruptcy discharge. See 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(8).
Discharging student loans is a difficult undertaking. It can easily cost up to $15,000 in legal fees to take the case all the way through trial, which is why many people don’t even try to attack their student loans.
From the first time I met Lois and learned of her situation, I knew that she was a good candidate to get out of these student loans. Not only that, but it was the just, fair, and right thing to do. Therefore, despite the financial burden of taking on Sallie Mae (one of the nation’s largest student loan holders), our office agreed to take up the fight. Primarily, I think, because Lois really does remind me of my grandmother Sophie. She is kind, intelligent, charitable, and she loves her grandchildren.
I often think “What would my gram do?” She would fight for the underdog.
Last month we filed a Complaint with the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Utah. A few days ago, we received word from Sallie Mae that they were going to stipulate to allow Lois out of her student loan debt. This means, this 67 year old grandmother, who did nothing more than assist her children with their education, will now be able to have over $48,000 in student loan debt included as a part of her bankruptcy discharge. She can now live out the rest of her days without the fear of bank garnishments, property executions, and a life free from debt. She wept when we told her the news.
Bankruptcy truly can be a blessing for those that are in need of its protection. The U.S. Supreme Court was right when it stated that the purpose of bankruptcy is to give “the honest, but unfortunate debtor a new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort, unhampered by the pressure and discouragement of pre-existing debt.” Local Loan Co. v Hunt, 292 US 234 (1934). I am grateful for the Bar’s pro-bono program and the opportunities it can give the public to seek out help for their legal needs.