By: Drew Henderson, J.D. ’19
For years, Corinthian Colleges, a network of over one hundred for-profit schools, defrauded students to rake in profits from taxpayer-funded federal student aid. Tens of thousands of students—many the first in their families to seek out higher education—were promised serious career training and job prospects, but left Corinthian’s campuses with little more than thousands of dollars in debt. The company’s bankruptcy in 2015 followed a series of investigations into the fraud that the school inflicted nationwide. But for many who were victimized by Corinthian’s practices, relief has yet to arrive. Over 100,000 applications for loan discharge remain pending at the Department of Education, with tens of thousands coming from Corinthian students.
The Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard’s Legal Services Center has long represented students who attended Corinthian schools. When I first joined the Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, in the spring semester of 2018, the Project was involved in at least three lawsuits against the Department of Education for its failure to provide legally mandated relief on the federal loans of former Corinthian students. One of those lawsuits, Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos, was a class action involving Corinthian borrowers whose applications for relief remain pending. Under a summary process established in the previous administration, those borrowers are entitled to prompt and full discharge of their debts.
A few weeks after the clinic started, I began working on Calvillo Manriquez. Corinthian students were beginning to hear back on their claims—but they were receiving much less than the full relief they had been promised. This news was concerning: not only would these partial denials require that our clients be forced to pay back unjust loans that they could not afford, but the adjudication of their claims also meant that they would face collection soon, before we could challenge the Department’s actions in court.
Project directors and attorneys, Eileen Connor, Toby Merrill, and Josh Rovenger, decided to amend our complaint to challenge the Department’s new methodology for partially denying students’ discharge applications. And to prevent the Department from collecting on our clients in the meantime, we would also file for a preliminary injunction. The expedited schedule of a motion for preliminary injunction meant that I would get to file our motion and attend oral argument in the Northern District of California before the end of my semester in the clinic.
To amend our complaint, we would need additional named plaintiffs who themselves had received partial denial of their claims. These individuals would need to be able to convey to the court why the Department’s illegal policy shift threatened to cause them irreparable harm, such that it should be enjoined. Ordinarily, such preliminary relief is not available when money is at stake, but an exception exists for extreme financial hardship.
We had received word from legal aid colleagues in Los Angeles that one of their clients might be willing to serve as a named plaintiff in our lawsuit. When I spoke with the client last March, she explained how she had attended a Corinthian program after school recruiters promised that her degree would qualify her for a job in medical billing. She graduated on-time from the program, only a few months before Corinthian shut down. She never even received her diploma. Since that time, she has found that deficiencies in the school’s curriculum meant that she cannot obtain a job like she was promised. Only a week before our call, the Department had told her that she would receive only twenty percent discharge of her loans. Alongside the expenses of caring for three children, this partial denial would be a tremendous burden for her family. Her story was one of hope for a brighter future that sadly turned to disappointment, and it is one that I heard many times during my clinical semester.
I worked to capture the client’s story in a declaration attached to our motion for preliminary injunction. In April, when I attended the oral argument in San Francisco, it was reassuring to hear the court reject the argument that our client had not faced irreparable harm — her story had been heard. It was similarly gratifying a few weeks later, when the court ruled in our clients’ favor, enjoining the Department from implementing its partial-denial policy. But the reality is that for these students, staving off collection is not enough: long after Corinthian closed, their debts remain.
The fight continues.