Synder was given 30 days to arrange payment or face legal action that could lead to his wages being garnished, compounding the financial instability brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
“I absolutely cannot fathom how a company claiming to be nonprofit ... would stoop so low as to try to threaten a lawsuit for debt that is literally 20 years old when there is a federally declared financial and medical crisis,” said Snyder, 39, a city planner in Burlington, N.C.
As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy, putting millions out of work and pummeling global markets, the federal government has moved to help Americans try to survive the economic unknown. Among the most attention-getting moves: a six-month moratorium on the collection of defaulted student loans by the federal government.
But even as Congress and the Trump administration acted, it was, and in some cases still is, business as usual in the private sector, with private education lenders and creditors filing a flurry of lawsuits throughout March to recover past-due debts, according to advocates and court records.
“It is appalling,” said Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, “that the private student loan industry continued to threaten litigation and file lawsuits against distressed borrowers in the midst of a pandemic.”
Private lenders hold roughly 8 percent of the nearly $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, according to MeasureOne, a firm that tracks the market. Those loans are excluded from the relief measures in the federal bailout bill, including payment postponement and the suspension of collections.
Unlike the federal government, private companies don’t have the power to seize tax refunds, wages and Social Security benefits to repay defaulted debt. They have to file a lawsuit and get a court judgment. If they’re successful, lenders and creditors can garnish a person’s wages or seize their assets.
National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, one of the nation’s largest holders of private education debt, employs an army of lawyers to aggressively recoup past-due student loans. Throughout March, as covid-19 ground the national economy to a halt and as advocates pressured lenders to stand down, the group’s lawyers filed dozens of cases against borrowers in California, Maryland, Illinois and New York.
After The Washington Post inquired about National Collegiate’s continued legal action, Transworld Systems, which oversees debt collection for the trusts, said that no new lawsuits will be filed for at least two months. The company said it is pulling lawsuits in the pipeline and will stop entering default judgments against borrowers during that time.
Navient was taking legal action against private student loan borrowers in early March but has since suspended all new lawsuits, default judgments and wage garnishment proceedings. Company spokesman Paul Hartwick said Navient decided to stop in mid-March “as the significant impact of the coronavirus became more clear.” The company has yet to determine an end date for the suspensions.
Other companies contacted for this story also said they will stop filing lawsuits against struggling borrowers during the outbreak. Overall, the pace of filings has slowed this week, though that’s in part because some courts are restricting access.
Debt collectors have also faced pressure from lawmakers and legal-aid groups to cease court action during the unprecedented global pandemic. But the industry has resisted. After Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced legislation to restrict collection practices during the pandemic, debt collection trade group ACA International railed against the bill.
“We are deeply alarmed that such an action would disrupt the credit ecosystem and cause further harm to consumers, lenders, medical providers and other businesses” that rely on debt collectors, Mark Neeb, chief executive of ACA International, wrote in March to Brown.
In an interview, Neeb said his industry already has programs in place to help those who need it, making legislation unnecessary. Collectors work on behalf of creditors, who are willing to work with customers during this time, he said.
“As dire as things are right now, and I just did my own math in my head this morning I made an estimate I thought the unemployment rate might be around 7 or 8 percent now, so that means 90 percent aren’t unemployed," Neeb said. "To make a wave-of-the-hand statement that an industry should be shut down because 8 percent of the population would perhaps have a difficult time meeting obligations right now seems like too much of an attempt to make a wave-of-the-hand statement that everybody is in dire financial straights. Everybody is not in dire financial straights.”
Last month, Greater Boston Legal Services sent a letter to several industry groups requesting a moratorium on involuntary collection and lawsuits. One trade group, Receivables Management Association International, issued guidance to its members encouraging them to consider suspending interest or reducing the balance of debt for people facing financial hardships. Another trade group, National Creditor Bar Association, promised to raise the issue with their board.
“Student loan and other forms of debt collection are a really serious issue during the crisis,” said Matthew Brooks, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “Even as courts close, debt collectors continue to call vulnerable community members and pressure them to make payments on debts of as little as $200.”
Some cities and states have also intervened to spare residents from litigation and collection. New York is halting the collection of state-issued student and medical debt, and no longer accepting court filings that are not considered essential, including student debt cases.
For Justin Snyder, getting a break, even temporarily, took both advocates and the government. Last week, the advocacy group Student Borrowers Protection Center raised concerns about Iowa Student Loan, Snyder’s lender, which has filed at least 18 lawsuits in the state since the government there declared a national emergency. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which was already monitoring the situation, then contacted the nonprofit lender. On Wednesday, the lender said it will “cease filing new lawsuits” and “retroactively dismiss any suits filed after the declaration was issued.”
That includes Snyder’s case. But while Snyder said he is thankful for the reprieve, it doesn’t lift the burden of the debt.
He said he and his wife, a physical therapist, are being careful with their spending in the event they lose their jobs. A job loss in 2009, followed by a difficult divorce and foreclosure, sunk Snyder’s finances and led him to file bankruptcy.
He thought his private student loans were discharged during those proceedings, especially since they no longer show up on this credit report. He said he had not heard from Iowa Student Loan since then. Snyder said he is not convinced the loans are still valid and will fight a lawsuit, whenever the nonprofit decides to sue again.
“My suspicion is that they will come at borrowers more aggressively once the pandemic clears,” he said. “I hope they take the high road and simply drop all cases, but I am fearful this won’t be the case.”