Education Law

ABA seeks summary judgment in suit over lawyers dropped from loan forgiveness program

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The ABA filed a motion for summary judgment on Wednesday in its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education for its decision to drop some lawyers from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

The federal suit alleges the department failed to follow statutory requirements and violated due process rights of the four individual plaintiffs, including two former ABA employees whose participation in the program was revoked.

The summary judgment motion asks a judge to require the department to stop issuing retroactive denials and to restore the individual plaintiffs’ eligibility for the program.

“The department’s arbitrary and capricious reversal of its prior eligibility approvals must be set aside,” the motion says.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program permits people who work in certain nonprofit and public service jobs to have the balance of their loans forgiven after working in such jobs for 10 years and making 120 on-time payments.

Geoffrey Burkhart was working for the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants in 2014 when he received confirmation that his form seeking qualification for the program had been accepted. More than two years later, Burkhart received a letter telling him his participation in the program had been revoked.

Another plaintiff, Michelle Quintero-Millan, worked for the ABA South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides legal services and legal rights education for detained indigent children and adults facing removal. The two other plaintiffs worked for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Regulations permit people to participate in the loan forgiveness program if they work in public service organizations providing public interest law services, the ABA motion says. Public service organizations are defined to include governmental entities, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits, and private organizations that provide public service, including public education and public services for individuals with disabilities and the elderly.

According to the motion, the ABA is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization that provides public and legal education, as well as public interest legal services. From 2012 to 2014, the Education Department had certified the eligibility of the ABA and individual plaintiffs for the program, but in 2014 the department “inexplicably changed its interpretation of its regulation,” according to the motion.

In an explanation to ABA Executive Director Jack Rives, the department said ABA employees did not qualify for the program because the ABA had not documented its “primary purpose” was to provide public interest law services. “Neither the statute nor the regulation provides any basis for the department’s ‘primary purpose’ standard, let alone explains how such a standard is to be applied,” the ABA motion says.

President Donald Trump’s budget plan proposes eliminating Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

A day before the ABA filed its summary judgment motion, the Education Department’s top student financial aid officer resigned. In a letter to colleagues, James Runcie stated he quit because of a lack of alignment between “operational leaders and political ones,” report Politico, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.). Decisions once made by his Office of Federal Student Aid are elevated to the department level, and functions of student aid are being transferred to the Treasury Department, Runcie said.

A spokeswoman for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Runcie resigned because he did not want to testify at a congressional hearing about management issues and improper financial aid payments.

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