15 Civ. 1230 (S.D.N.Y.)

On May 18, 2015, the New York Legal Assistance Group filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, to compel the Department to release documents outlining how students who have been harmed and misled by unscrupulous institutions of higher education can assert their rights to have their federal student loans cancelled.

NYLAG submitted a FOIA request to the Department on December 5, 2014, seeking disclosure of records related to student borrower options for seeking debt relief, and related documents. Initially, the Department denied NYLAG’s request for a fee waiver in connection with its FOIA request, but after NYLAG filed an administrative appeal, the Department granted that request.

More than five months after NYLAG submitted its FOIA request, the Department had not produced any records. This is despite the fact that 20 years ago, Congress had directed the Department of Education to establish policies and procedures for student loan borrowers to seek to have their federal loan debt canceled based on the misconduct of the schools they attended.

Only after NYLAG filed its FOIA lawsuit in federal court, the Department began to produce some records. Then, in August 2015 the Department claimed, after it had produced a few batches of documents, that there were no more government records that were relevant to NYLAG’s request. Since then, NYLAG has been negotiating with the Department’s lawyers, and has secured the release of further waves of documents. We are very concerned with the government’s practice of redacting so much content from these records and are continuing to negotiate with the government to ensure the release of all information to which the public is entitled.

On October 28, 2016, the Department filed a motion for summary judgment seeking court approval of its numerous redactions. On December 16, 2016, NYLAG filed a cross motion for summary judgement and a motion in opposition to the Department’s motion for summary judgment arguing that large swaths of the Departments redactions were improper. The Department filed a motion in opposition on January 17, 2017 and NYLAG replied on January 31, 2017.

On July 12, 2017, the district court granted in part NYLAG’s summary judgment motion seeking the production of some of the withheld documents.  Among other findings, the court rejected the Department’s claim it could shield its debt collection activities as “law enforcement.”  The Special Litigation Unit anticipates that the documents covered by the ruling will shed crucial light on the Department’s practices with respect to this critical borrower protection and on the Department’s collection practices in general.  The decision creates a strong precedent in favor of transparency by the government more widely than just this context.

NYLAG Attorneys:  Jane Greengold Stevens, Danielle Tarantolo, Thalia Julme

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