JDC’s Federal Pro Bono Project Defends Against Student Loan Collection

By Gloria Chun, Supervising Attorney and Pro Bono Manager, JDC

Many attorneys in the local legal community know that JDC’s Federal Pro Bono Project arranges pro bono counsel for low-income litigants in federal court. But fewer people know the project also operates the Legal Help Centers in the Northern District of California’s San Francisco and Oakland courthouses.

Through the Legal Help Center, the project recently helped a pro se litigant resolve the U.S. Department of Education’s lawsuit to pay an alleged student loan debt that he had never incurred.

The Department of Education has recently redoubled efforts to collect on defaulted student loans. Instead of its typical practice in the past of garnishing a borrower’s wages to get repayment on a defaulted Federal Student Loan, the Department of Education now increasingly assigns defaulted loans to private attorneys who sue borrowers for repayment and interest.

When a man recently faced having his wages garnished under this new practice, JDC’s Federal Pro Bono Project Supervising Attorney Manjari Chawla helped him.

After the client toured a school but did not enroll or take on a student loan in the early 1990s, the Department of Education sued him in 1998 for repayment on alleged debt. Including accrued interest, the lawsuit sought $10,000 on an alleged $5,000 loan, and when JDC’s client did not respond, the government obtained a judgment for $10,000.

Sixteen years later, in 2014, a private attorney obtained an order granting a writ of garnishment to enforce the judgment, now claimed to be for $20,000 with additional interest.

When JDC’s client received notice that his employer would begin garnishing his wages, he went to the Legal Help Center in the San Francisco District Court. There, Chawla helped the client write and file a pro se motion to set aside the judgment and writ of garnishment.

After receiving the motion, the federal judge who had granted the 2014 writ of garnishment asked the private attorney enforcing the Department of Education’s judgment for an explanation. The attorney filed a statement of non-opposition agreeing that JDC’s client owed no money on a federal loan, and that the government should dismiss its judgment.