ACLU sues Department of Education over student debt info

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BOSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is taking the U.S. Department of Education to federal court in an effort to force the government agency to cough up information about its student debt collection practices, especially as they relate to minority borrowers.

In a joint Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, the ACLU and the National Consumer Law Center note in their filing that they originally requested the release of Department of Education records last May.

The May 7, 2015, FOIA request sought the release of Department of Education records outlining the department’s “collection practices, the policies governing the private collection agencies (‘PCAs’) with which it contracts and ED’s policies for monitoring the racial impact of its collection policies and practices.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, notes that while the department “issued two incomplete interim releases” it also “improperly redacted information from the records it did provide.”

In a press release posted to the ACLU’s website, staff attorney Rachel Goodman accused the Department of Education of “acting like it has something to hide.”

“The public has a right to know how a taxpayer-funded agency handles debt collection to ensure it is done in a fair and nondiscriminatory way,” added Goodman, who works for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “And if taxpayer dollars are being handed over to private debt collectors, we need to know about their practices too. We expect transparency.”

Persis Yu, director of the NCLC’s student loan borrower assistance project, described the federal government’s default student loan collection methods as “draconian” and noted that “it is vital that those tools are not wielded in a racially discriminatory way.”

The Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, according to the ACLU, claims it “has no protocols for examining collections by race.”

The ACLU notes in its complaint that blacks and Latinos are far more likely to hold student debt compared to whites and that “borrowers of color are more likely to default on student loans.”

The ACLU and the NCLC also claim in the lawsuit that the Department of Education “has repeatedly failed to protect borrowers” when private collection agencies seek to collect defaulted debt. The complaint references twin 2014 announcements from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Education own inspector general that expressed concerns about a lack of private collection agency oversight.

“To the extent that PCAs do not comply with federal law or with contractual requirements for treating borrowers fairly, borrowers of color will pay the price, both literally and figuratively,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also includes a timeline of the runaround the ACLU and the NCLU experienced in dealing with the Department of Education. The group claims in the lawsuit that the data it did receive shows that the Department of Education “makes no attempt to monitor for racially adverse impact” as it relates to debt collection policies.

“Who gets assessed additional fees, has their wages garnished or has their debts offset during the collections process are important questions that must be answered. We should not allow the Education Department’s lack of monitoring to exacerbate existing racial disparities,” Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, stated in Friday’s press release.

The Department of Education’s communications office has not yet returned a message left Friday evening requesting comment.

Read the complaint here:

ACLU v Dept of Ed