NEW YORK—A class-action suit filed in federal court sets out serious allegations that student loan servicer Navient has misled borrowers in public service professions from accessing a loan forgiveness program to boost its own profits.
The landmark complaint, which seeks millions in damages and class-wide injunctive relief, details a spate of systematic misrepresentations, untruths and misdirection pedaled by Navient to stop borrowers from enrolling in Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a 10-year payoff plan administered by rival servicer FedLoan. As a result, teachers, nurses, first responders, social workers and other people who have dedicated their lives to helping others are paying millions more than they otherwise should in student loan payments.
Rather than promote the availability of PSLF, Navient recommended forbearance and other less effective remedies to those seeking debt relief. The suit alleges Navient ignored borrowers’ best interests—in violation of its government contract—to prevent borrowers from moving to FedLoan, so it could continue to earn millions in fees.
The suit is brought by nine members of the American Federation of Teachers in four states on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated public servants. The Department of Education, which contracted with Navient to carry out its duties, has stood idly by while complaints against Navient piled up.
The complaint alleges that Navient staff are financially incentivized to keep calls with borrowers short—under seven minutes—not nearly long enough to properly assess their eligibility for PSLF. The suit also details how Navient steered PSLF-eligible candidates into non-qualifying plans and wrongly told borrowers in those plans they were on track for PSLF.
Plaintiff Michelle Means is a first-grade public school teacher in Maryland. Navient misled Means by telling her that a single missed or late payment would be enough to completely disqualify her for PSLF. But a borrower’s qualifying payments for PSLF need not be consecutive, and borrowers may continue making qualifying payments even if they have missed payments in the past. Means did not pursue PSLF further, believing she would be unable to make 120 consecutive payments, and instead went into forbearance. As a result of Navient’s misrepresentations, Means has and will make thousands of dollars in payments of principal and interest that would have otherwise been forgiven under PSLF.
America is in the midst of a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis, more than the entire GDP of Russia. PSLF, passed in 2007, enables qualifying public servants to discharge their loans after 10 years, a potential savings of tens of thousands of dollars. But since its inception, the program has been mishandled and undermined by the Department of Education’s contracted servicers.
The department admitted last month that less than one percent of borrowers who submitted PSLF applications after the first cohort of candidates became eligible last year—96 out of 28,000—have been accepted into the program. And just 1.2 million borrowers have sought to have their eligibility certified out of approximately 32 million who may qualify, with only 900,000 currently enrolled.
The American Federation of Teachers is supportive of its members’ suit. In a recent AFT member survey, 97 percent said student debt increased stress in their lives. The vast majority—80 percent—said they’ve lost sleep over it. Nearly three-quarters—72 percent—said it strained family and household relationships. A third said they had gone into default.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “Navient has purposely and systematically trapped teachers, nurses and other public service workers under a mountain of student debt instead of providing them with accurate information about their loan options and the loan forgiveness programs they qualify for and deserve. No one goes into public service to strike it rich; they do it out of a deep commitment to students, patients and the public good. But we cannot attract the best and brightest to these careers if promises of debt relief are deliberately broken.
“Navient, rather than fulfill its responsibilities, has instead deceived America’s public servants and public servants-to-be, under the eye of Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education. But what goes around comes around—and it’s well past time that Navient faced up to its lies.
“We’ve heard our members’ concerns and complaints about the ruinous effect of the debt on their lives, and we’ve taken on the student debt crisis as a union issue. It’s an epidemic, and people are suffering. The stories from members haunt me: from new teachers who can’t stay in the profession because they’re defaulting on their loans, to experienced professionals who can’t retire because they can’t afford payments on their kids’ loans. This crisis affects us all.
“This suit seeks not only damages but injunctive relief to protect the next generation of borrowers. We will have our members’ backs as they pursue this complaint to not only achieve justice for Navient’s 6.1 million federal student loan borrowers, but also uphold Congress’—and the American people’s—intent when they created PSLF to help those who are helping others.”
The suit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs are represented by Selendy & Gay PLLC. The filing is available here.