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Student-loan discharges in bankruptcy and public education for kids with disabilities

This week we highlight cert petitions that ask the Supreme Court to consider, among other things, the discharge of student-loan debt for “undue hardship” and the statute of limitations for IDEA “child-find” violations.

The Bankruptcy Code allows the discharge of student-loan debt if repayment would cause the borrower “undue hardship.” The U.S. courts of appeals, however, apply different tests to decide what counts as an “undue hardship.” One test tries to look holistically at the “totality of the circumstances.” In McCoy v. United States, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit applied what is known as the Brunner test. This three-part test requires someone with student loans to show: “(1) that [she] cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a ‘minimal’ standard of living for herself and her dependents if forced to repay the loans; (2) that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans; and (3) that [she] has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.” Because Thelma McCoy had secured a part-time job, among other things, the 5th Circuit found that she did not satisfy the Brunner test’s second prong. Arguing that the circuit split is often outcome-determinative, McCoy asks for the justices’ review.

Independent School District No. 283 v. E.M.D.H. ex rel. L.H. and S.D. presents the justices with a procedural question under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: How long do parents have to complain about a school district’s alleged failure to provide a “free appropriate public education” to a child with a disability? The statute gives parents two years, but a question remains as to when the two-year clock starts running. In this case, a Minnesota child with various psychological disorders entered a psychiatric day-treatment facility in May 2015. In June 2017, the child’s parents filed an administrative complaint that the district had failed in its “child-find” obligation, a district’s duty to ensure “[a]ll children with disabilities residing in the State … are identified, located, and evaluated.” In response, the district argued that two years had elapsed. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that the violation was not isolated to May 2015 but continued day after day into the limitations period. In its petition, the district argues that this decision created a circuit split and asks for the justices’ review.

These and other petitions of the week are below:

McCoy v. United States
Issue: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred in applying the test from Brunner v. New York State Higher Education Services Corp., which prohibits discharge unless the debtor can prove, among other things, a “total incapacity” to repay the debt in the future, instead of the totality test to determine whether a debtor would suffer an “undue hardship” absent discharge of her student loan debt.

Independent School District No. 283 v. E.M.D.H. ex rel. L.H. and S.D.
Issue: Whether the continuing-violation doctrine applies to the two-year statutory time limit to file an administrative complaint under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Alaska v. Wright
Issue: Whether, when an offender has fully served the sentence imposed pursuant to a state conviction, a federal habeas court has jurisdiction to consider a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenge to that conviction merely because it served as a predicate for an independent federal conviction under which the offender is now in custody.

Atkins v. Williams
Issues: (1) Whether the unavailability of funds or other resources negates the subjective component of a deliberate indifference claim under the Eighth Amendment; and (2) whether, if lack of funds is a valid defense at all, a defendant can assert this defense when sued in his or her official capacity for injunctive relief.

Stewart v. City of Euclid, Ohio
Issue: Whether, when a municipal employee has violated the Constitution, a plaintiff must point to “clearly established law” (such as would overcome a defense of qualified immunity by an individual officer) in order to prove deliberate indifference for municipal liability purposes.

Ellis v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston
Issue: What the correct test to apply is in deciding whether an otherwise applicable state law—here, a state law prohibiting discretion-conferring provisions in insurance contracts—can be displaced by an Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 plan’s choice-of-law clause.

Owens v. Stirling
Issues: (1) For claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, what standard is to be used by federal courts of appeals for determining whether the underlying constitutional claim is “substantial” under Martinez v. Ryan, and how does it relate to the determination that a petitioner has met the requirements to obtain a Certificate of Appealability, under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c) and as described by the Supreme Court in Miller-El v. Cockrell; and (2) whether, under the Martinez standard, it is proper for courts of appeals determining the substantial quality of the underlying constitutional claim to rely on an imbalanced consideration of the record, including ignoring evidence in the record in support of a petitioner’s underlying constitutional claim—as happened in Freddie Owens’s case.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Student-loan discharges in bankruptcy and public education for kids with disabilities, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 5, 2021, 5:59 PM),