Paul L. Caron
Dean


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Ohio Supreme Court: 2019 Law Grad's $900,000 Student Loan Debt Does Not Disqualify Her For Admission To The Bar

Following up on my previous post, Court Cites Student Loans As Reason To Deny Bar Admission To New LawyerIn re Application of Rodgers, Slip Op. No. 2020-Ohio-770 (Mar. 5, 2020):

RogersApplicant, Cynthia Marie Rodgers, of Dresden, Ohio, is a 2019 graduate of Capital University Law School. Rodgers applied to register as a candidate for admission to the Ohio bar and to take the July 2019 bar exam. ...

[T]he board issued a report recommending that we disapprove Rodgers’s pending application on the ground that she has failed to establish that she currently possesses the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications to practice law in this state and that we permit her to reapply for the July 2024 bar exam. In support of that recommendation, the board cites Rodgers’s default on several consumer debts, the nearly $900,000 in student-loan debt that she and her husband have amassed in the pursuit of multiple degrees, and her personal involvement in nearly 60 civil proceedings—in some of which it appears that she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. ...

Rodgers objects to the board’s findings that she neglected her financial responsibilities, abused the legal process, and demonstrated an ongoing lack of integrity on the grounds that (1) her default on several consumer debts occurred more than 15 years ago, (2) her student-loan debt, while significant, is not in default, and (3) her past litigation, most of which occurred before she attended law school, does not accurately reflect her current character, fitness, or moral qualifications to practice law. She contends that she has been honest about her debts, has abided by the terms of her student-loan repayment plan for nearly 20 years, and has become more circumspect about pursuing litigation since she enrolled in law school. She therefore urges this court to find that she has carried her burden of establishing that she currently possesses the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications for approval of her pending bar-exam application.

For the reasons that follow, we sustain Rodgers’s objections to the board’s report and find that she has established by clear and convincing evidence that she currently possesses the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications required for admission to the practice of law. We therefore approve Rodgers’s pending application and permit her to sit for the July 2020 bar exam. ...

The board ... expressed significant concerns regarding the nearly $900,000 of student-loan debt that Rodgers and her husband have incurred and her acknowledgment that they would never be able to repay the entire amount that they owed. [Fn. 1. According to Rodgers’s April 14, 2019 credit report, the original balance of the consolidated loans was $339,540, but under the income-contingent repayment plan, that amount had ballooned to $884,403 by March 31, 2019.]

In In re Application of Griffin, 128 Ohio St.3d 300, 2011-Ohio-20, 943 N.E.2d 1008, ¶ 4, 6, we found that an applicant failed to prove that he possessed the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications for admission to the practice of law based in part on his student-loan debt of approximately $170,000. But the applicant’s loans and an additional $16,500 in credit-card debt had been in default for more than a year, and the applicant had no plan or ability to pay those debts. Although we disapproved the applicant’s pending bar-exam application, we permitted the applicant to reapply for the exam to be administered one year after the exam he originally sought to take.

In contrast to Griffin, Rodgers testified that after she became disabled in 2001, she and her husband consolidated their student loans and entered into a 25-year income-contingent repayment plan. She explained that pursuant to that plan, they were required to pay a percentage of their income above $20,000 for 25 years and that any amount that remained unpaid after that time would be forgiven. She stated that at the time of her character and fitness hearing, their payment was zero because their income was so low and that they had approximately six years left before the remaining balance was forgiven. Although Rodgers had no idea how much she had borrowed to attend law school, or the total amount of her student-loan debt,2 she understood that even if the previously consolidated student loans were forgiven in the next five or six years, she would likely be paying 10 to 15 percent of her income toward her law-school loans for the rest of her life.

Given the current status of Rodgers’s credit report, the candid disclosure of her default on several consumer debts—the most recent of which occurred more than 15 years ago—and her compliance with the terms of her student-loan repayment plan, we cannot agree with the board’s assessment that Rodgers has neglected her financial responsibilities. On the contrary, it appears that she is currently meeting all of her financial obligations with the exception of the one disputed consumer debt mentioned above and that she has taken full advantage of the opportunities that the federal-student-loan program has made available to further her educational goals. ...

Based upon the foregoing, we find that Rodgers has carried her burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that she currently possesses the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications to practice law in Ohio. We therefore approve Rodgers’s pending application and permit her to sit for the July 2020 bar exam, provided that she satisfies the remaining registration requirements. ...

FISCHER, J., dissenting. I respectfully dissent. Because I conclude that applicant, Cynthia Marie Rodgers, has failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that she is currently fit for admission to the practice of law, I would disapprove her pending application to register as a candidate for admission to the Ohio bar but would permit her to reapply for the July 2024 bar exam. ... 

[T]he Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness expressed significant concerns regarding the nearly $900,000 of student-loan debt that Rodgers and her husband have incurred as well as her acknowledgment that she and her husband would never repay the entire amount they owe. I share these concerns. ...

It is true that, unlike Griffin, who failed to make any payments toward his student-loan debt and was unable to meet his credit-card obligations, Rodgers is currently meeting her student-loan obligations under an incomecontingent repayment plan (although it should be noted that Rodgers had no repayment obligation under that plan at the time of her character-and-fitness hearing). Rodgers, however, is responsible for more than five times the amount of student-loan debt than that for which Griffin was responsible. ...

How can she possess the requisite fitness for admission to the practice of law when she has demonstrated a pattern of neglecting financial responsibilities, which has culminated in her being responsible for approximately $900,000 in student loans without any intention to repay those loans?

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2020/03/ohio-supreme-court-2019-law-grads-900000-student-loan-debt-does-not-disqualify-her-for-admission-to-.html

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Comments

It's a good thing that JD premium is ONE MILLION OF DOLLARS; otherwise this lady would be in a spot of bother. /sarc

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 10, 2020 8:17:21 AM

Dear Judge Fischer: don't fault her for government-encouraged irresponsibility! The government has no expectation of being repaid! Those profs need the salaries!

Posted by: Anon | Mar 10, 2020 8:41:53 AM

@Anon,

If, per the majority opinion, she has been in a student loan repayment plan for almost 20 years, then her loans predate GradPLUS (invented in 2006). Most of her loans are going to turn out to be private loans. Not FFEL (government guaranteed loans), but private. Brought to you by the Holy Free Market and aided considerably by its securitization subsidiary and all of the *chuckle* due diligence that comes with it.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 10, 2020 2:39:42 PM

The government has indeed encouraged irresponsibility, even if unintentionally, but this has little to do with professor salaries. Moreover, irresponsibility that is encouraged is still irresponsibility.

Posted by: Michael Petrik | Mar 11, 2020 2:31:29 PM

@ Michael
Excusez-moi?

Number of full-time professors in US: 800,000

Number of full-time professors in US x $100,000 salary = $80 billion

Federal Student Aid per year: $150 billion

Posted by: Anon | Mar 15, 2020 10:29:40 PM

@Unemployed

You're probably assuming too much.

"She received a juris doctorate degree from Capital University Law School in May, 2019. Prior to attending and graduating from Capital Law School, the applicant received an Associate Degree from Ohio University in 1991. She received a B.A. Degree from Ohio University in 2012 majoring in philosophy pre-law. She pursued a Master of Arts Degree in philosophy at Ohio University from 1993 until 1995, but never completed the program because she never wrote a thesis."

Posted by: Anon | Mar 15, 2020 10:35:11 PM