A federal appellate case has the potential to make substantial changes to the way American bankruptcy courts handle student loans. Federal bankruptcy law does not allow courts to discharge student loan debt, unless the debtor can show that they and their dependents would suffer “undue hardship” if they were forced to repay the debt. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8). The statute does not define “undue hardship,” so courts have had to apply their own interpretations. Most federal circuits have adopted the Brunner test, named for Brunner v. N.Y. State Higher Educ. Servs. Corp., 831 F.2d 395 (2d Cir. 1987), which uses a three-part test to establish “undue hardship.” The current case, Murphy v. Sallie Mae, et al., No. 14-1691 (1st Cir., Jun. 30, 2014), is in a circuit that has not expressly adopted any standard for “undue hardship.” This has made the case the center of a battle between consumer advocates on one side and student-loan lenders, with the support of the federal government, on the other.
The elements that a debtor must prove under the Brunner test made sense in 1987, but they are not necessarily as widely applicable in the world of 2015. A debtor must prove that they would not be able to maintain a basic standard of living, based on their current income and expenses, without discharge of the loans; that their current financial hardship is likely to continue for most of the repayment period; and that they have attempted to repay the loans in good faith. The second part of the test seems especially difficult, since it asks the court to predict the future, but the third part has also produced results that seem remarkably unjust.
The debtor in Murphy is 65 years old and has been out of work since he lost his job as the president of a manufacturing company in 2002. He has been unable to find work since that time. According to the district court that heard his case in 2014, he blamed his ongoing unemployment on his age and level of qualifications, as well as “the shrinking American manufacturing base.” Murphy v. Educ. Credit Mgt. Corp., 511 B.R. 1, 2 (D. Mass. 2014). From 2001 to 2007, he took out multiple loans, totaling more than $220,000, to finance his three children’s college educations.