May 22, 2012

"A former law student has won a bid in bankruptcy court to discharge nearly $340,000 in education debt..."

"... because her diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome rendered her unable to repay the loans."
[Carol] Todd, who received her high school general equivalency diploma during the late 1980s, at the age of 39, began attending law school in 1992 but did not finish, according to the opinion. She went on to obtain a master's degree from Towson University and a Ph.D. from an unaccredited online school in 2007. She filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009. At the time of her trial, she was 63 and owed $339,361 to three student loan creditors....

"[T]o expect Ms. Todd to ever break the grip of Autism and meaningfully channel her energies toward tasks that are not in some way either dictated, or circumscribed, by the demands of her disorder would be to dream the impossible dream," [wrote U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gordon.
It's extremely unusual for student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy. This is one individual's case, but it makes me wonder about the many people with mental disabilities who take on education debt. Does the judge mean to send them the message that they are dreaming an impossible dream?

IN THE COMMENTS: Patrick answers my question:
No, but it sends the banks a message that they risk losing their money if they don't discriminate against people with mental illness.


rhhardin said...

Legal reasoning at work.

Dream the impossible dream was a positive in the original. It made the world better.

Maguro said...

I always wondered what happened to former law student.

Stoutcat said...

Wait, I'm confused. Did she have Asperger's while in school? Was it diagnosed before she applied for her loans? Did she disclose her disability on her loan forms?

Or is this one of those Obamacare issues where you can't be refused for a student loan just because your existing condition likely means you won't be able to pay back over a quarter of a million dollars?

Patrick said...

"Does the judge mean to send them the message that they are dreaming an impossible dream?

No, but it sends the banks a message that they risk losing their money if they don't discriminate against people with mental illness.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

Federal student loans are dischargeable by any disability I believe.

edutcher said...

I guess we'll be seeing the Occupation babe who had a degree in Hispanic trans-gender studies and couldn't find a job in bankruptcy court to discharge her $87,000 in education debt before long.

Jason said...

If these are federally guaranteed student loans, the bank didn't lose money. We did.

But what's the alternative? How collectible do you think this is? And are we in a position to second guess her characterization of her ability to earn a living? The judge in this case had to make a decision, and heard the testimoney. I didn't.

Lyssa said...

I've heard some people float the idea that student loans should be handled like small business loans - that is, you've got to make the case that it's a good investment and you can pay it back.

That would have really helped here. You should have to prove where you're going with things before you take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.

MadisonMan said...

What Patrick said. It does make we wonder: Why would someone loan her money in the first place

Now watch all the debtors try to figure out what kind of disability they can claim.

lemondog said...

Assuming all legitimate expenses, $340,000 in student loans indicates something is seriously out of whack with higher ed.

Patrick said...

What Patrick said. It does make we wonder: Why would someone loan her money in the first place

The other side of that coin is they would be sued within inches of their lives and bank accounts if they refused to give this woman a loan because of her inability to repay it, er, I mean her disability.

ndspinelli said...

Having read a thousand or so bankruptcy files, I saw many w/ student loans being secured creditors right alongside the IRS and judgements resulting from a criminal act. This is an interesting decision, thanks. I doubt many student loans will be discharged, but who knows. There are many psych. disorders and even more attorneys.

cubanbob said...

An excellent reason for abolish the federal student loan program. Let private lenders do the lending using stricter lending requirements.

Paul Zrimsek said...

The dream of spending gobs of other people's money has never looked more possible.

Bender said...

With her condition, how was it that she was able to function enough to go to these schools? And how does she support herself now? Is she receiving SSA disability payments? Does she have any money at all?

Believe me, I am all for reforming the criminal scam that is the student loan program (for one thing, once they are taken over by the government, they ought to be interest-free, rather than have people owe $20,000 in principal and $30,000 in accumulated interest), but at age 63, if she has a significant estate, perhaps they could have discharged the debt out of her estate after she died?

If she does die with a large estate, then something did go wrong here.

Mitchell said...

Ms. Todd has Asperger Syndrome and the judge said she will never "break the grip of Autism."

And there was a TV ad campaign in the 70's for Aspercreme (an arthritis analgesic) with the slogan "break the grip of pain."

So we've got two things in tandem to work into a nifty comment. We've got "asper" and we've got "break the grip."

But it wasn't Aspercreme. The Googles says the ad was for Ben-Gay.

And that's why I haz a sad.

Donna B. said...

Getting and holding onto a job requires an entirely different skill set than getting any degree.

Roman said...

This will blossom if stupid and delusional become "legal" arguments for disabilities.

Hagar said...

This is not the only "impossible dream" that our Congress critters have dreamt.

Bruce Hayden said...

With her condition, how was it that she was able to function enough to go to these schools?

I think that part of my problem there is that the judge apparently wrote:

"[T]o expect Ms. Todd to ever break the grip of Autism and meaningfully channel her energies toward tasks that are not in some way either dictated, or circumscribed, by the demands of her disorder would be to dream the impossible dream," he wrote.

The problem is that, unless something has changed in the last year or so, Asperger's is not Autism (but maybe an ASD - Autism Spectrum Disorder). Plenty of productive Aspy's, who could pay this off. Not so likely with real Autism.

My understanding is that one way to tell the two apart at a young age is through language development - at, say, the age of two or so, the Autistic will typically be severely behind in language development, wheres the Aspy won't be, or nearly as much. Friend was diagnosed by the public school system as Autistic because she wasn't speaking. It turned out that she could, and did just fine with family, but refused to speak in school. Back then though, they really didn't understand this difference between the two.

If nothing else, a lot of people with Asperger's can and do pass just fine in society. With this friend, I just thought that she had a severe OCD problem, but have a lot of OCD in my family anyway, so didn't think much of it - very helpful trait in engineering and law. Until, the first time I watched her shut down due to excess auditory stimulation.

My point here is that Asperger's is probably less likely to disable someone from dealing in society and being able to pay this off than is Autism. Confusing the two may have been good lawyering, but may not have been totally honest.

Bender said...

I have known plenty of unemployable people who have no money and will never be able to earn any real money from employment, but who are nevertheless saddled with court-imposed debt that they are expected to pay, or at least make some efforts toward payment, else they be in violation of probation and go to jail.

Again, I have absolutely no problems with wiping out the entirety of the interest on this debt no questions asked. But I do have to ask how this woman spends her day? Is it sitting in front of the TV doing nothing, or is she fairly productive around the house? Even if unemployable for monetary wages, she might be able to perform community service work (and that, in turn, might help her to become employable later).

Bender said...

Perhaps better than discharge loan debt in these situations, we finally apply contract law to schools and grant rescission to the initial obligation to pay tuition?

Rather than allow schools to continue to scam and profit and enrich themselves, compel the schools to refund the tuition that they charged, which is then subrogated to the lender.

Molly said...

I predict: 1. Over the next decade or so, there will be a considerable shriveling in sympathy for people with disabilities. 2. The blame will be laid at the feet of those who are less sympathetic, and not those who made fraudulent or dubious claims of disability.

Remember the episode of "curb your enthusiasm" where Larry gets into a controversy with a guy who has disability tags and no obvious disability, but who reveals that his disability is that he stutters?

John Lynch said...

What a load of shit! This woman was gaming the system so she could live off of student loans her whole life. And she got a lot of help to do it. Isn't it obvious?

Asperger's doesn't keep people from repaying loans! If someone can get into law school, how are they unable to understand math? I don't see how they're unemployable, either. If they are unemployable, why spend the money educating them?

This is insulting, and it raises doubts for the public that autism even exists.

Autism sucks. I've got a bad case of Asperger's, autism-spectrum, whatever it's called now. I work at making sure pizzas get where they need to go, but I'm completely debt-free, having got the US Navy to pay for my college degree (which I'm not using at all.)

Autism sucks (the biggest problem it's caused me lately is my tendency to make oddly-shaped pies) but it doesn't prevent me from working. If someone could get to law school and get a master's degree, they should be able to handle a job. If they can't, they need to work on it. There's a man at my store even worse off than I am, but he gets the pizzas to the customer.

A job is a job, and people need to be willing to contribute even if they are disabled. It's harder, but people can do a lot more than they think.

Shanna said...

This is one individual's case, but it makes me wonder about the many people with mental disabilities who take on education debt

a.I’m sure there are plenty of people with aspergers who are able to finish law school (indeed, didn't stop her from getting a masters/'online' phd) and

b.Do we really think the ADA would have allowed the school to discriminate based on this disability?

This lady seems like she spent her whole life going to school in order to avoid working.

GT said...

I wonder if employers can now point to decisions like this as justification (under ADA) for declining to hire applicants having these disabilities.

Kelly said...

On balance, federally guaranteed student loans are really just another category of sub-prime loans.

Penny said...

This just didn't smell right so went looking for some more information and WOW!

Some quotes from Ms. Todd taken from

"I followed advice that I was given by rehabilitation specialists and went in — that paid for my education and went into Villa Julie College the day after I think I got my GED. And I think I was really dumb, but I did extremely well and then I got — I won a full scholarship to law school, an accelerated program; and then left that and went to the College of Notre Dame — . . . and then got a Bachelor's Degree; and then went to Towson University.
I didn't exactly earn my degrees, they were negotiated for me by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, who repeatedly came in and said that —
[Objection sustained]
* * *
My experience is that I could not graduate on my own and I had to rely on the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights going to the school and to inform [sic] that I was a member of a protected class and had to have academic adjustments under Section 504, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.13
* * *
It was my understanding that I needed to sign all these papers [loan documents], and there were a lot of them, to continue with my rehabilitation program rather than initially thinking of them as loans I was responsible for.
* * *
I believed it was known that people with disabilities had a valuable contribution to make and there was a lot of pressure to get off of disabilities and — meaning Social Security disability income and get into the work force. So my rehabilitation program was to help me do that."

Penny said...

Much more at

R. Chatt said...

I agree with Bender, it's mostly a scam on the part of the schools, the student was probably self deluded.

Surely the school has a responsibility to evaluate the suitability and likely success of an individual before admitting them. But with online programs if you are taught by robots there's no limit on how many students (tuition payers) the school can admit is there?

John Lynch said...

Reading the case at makes me even madder. I can see that Ms. Todd didn't feel she had any choices, and that her behavior was encouraged by the educators she fell in with.

Why encourage this woman to take on debt when she can't complete the coursework, let alone ever apply the knowledge?

The educational institutions should have to pay the lenders for the debt. They sold the lender on a student who would never be capable of working, or if she did, would never be able to repay the loans.

From the opinion:

"Notwithstanding the good intentions of all involved, Ms. Todd's and the DOE's collaborative mission to integrate her into the work force turned out to be a lost cause (outside of its purely academic benefits) due to her Autism and its utter negation of her ability to ever hold down a real job that paid significant wages.

d. Ms. Todd's Employment History

Ms. Todd has only been employed for a single, brief period in her life. From 1999-2003, she worked as an adjunct professor at these West Virginia institutions: Fairmount College, West Virginia University and Marshall University. She taught only one two-credit course per semester and never worked more than two semesters in a given year. While teaching she continued her own course of study, taking classes at Regent. She had to begin preparing three days in advance to be ready to teach a single class session. She was a contract employee and was paid a meager total of $1,200 for each semester (representing payment for teaching one class) that she taught."

Knowing this, educators kept selling her useless degrees. For some reason, she never got a real job. I'm curious what Ms. Todd did before her 30s, when she first fell into the clutches of academia. A much better use of her time would have been an entry-level, even minimum wage, job that would have gotten her used to working. Coddling her in an academic environment did more harm than good.

My life experience taught me that academia was a trap. I could do an outstanding job taking classes but it didn't really do anything for me. I didn't feel any better, and the educational system tends to reinforce the problems of autistic people rather than solving them. In academia you can be a savant, good at taking classes but useless at everything else. Education doesn't challenge autistic people to improve the way a simple, real-world job does. It tells them how smart they are, without preparing them for the challenges of living that a normal person takes for granted.

I spent a lot of time getting a degree, but my time working real jobs was much better spent. Learning to work did far more to mitigate my autism than anything I learned in school. When I was younger I could be reduced to tears by simple tasks, but now I can shrug off challenges. Work is a source of self-esteem as well as income. Pizzas saved me.

I believe the "good intentions" of the educators were rooted in the idea that a life without a college degree condemned people to a desolate, soulless existence. In this case, Ms. Todd would have been better off working than going to college. She would have had to overcome her disability instead of reinforcing it.

Lawyer Mom said...

Oh, I just now saw this post and feel like a goof after the jumping-up-and-down, arm-waving email I just sent you about this case. Argh.

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