A former law student has won a bid in bankruptcy court to discharge nearly $340,000 in education debt because her diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome rendered her unable to repay the loans.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland on May 17 found that Carol Todd, who attended the University of Baltimore School of Law, met the difficult burden of showing that she would suffer undue hardship if forced to repay her debt.
Todd, who received her high school general equivalency diploma during the late 1980s, at the age of 39, began attending law school in 1992 but did not finish, according to the opinion. She went on to obtain a master's degree from Towson University and a Ph.D. from an unaccredited online school in 2007. She filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009. At the time of her trial, she was 63 and owed $339,361 to three student loan creditors.
Unlike credit card debt and other loans, student debt must be repaid under federal bankruptcy law unless the debtor's circumstances meet the rigorous "undue burden" standard.
In this case, Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gordon recognized the difficulty of meeting that standard—"it must be possible for some combination of factors to exist to justify the discharge of a student loan debt," he wrote.
He said that Todd had Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that prevented her from getting a job and maintaining a minimal standard of living. Her situation, he found, fell under the federal law's exemption for repayment of student loan debt. He noted that, during her testimony, she became overwhelmed when asked "seemingly innocuous questions" and "folded into a fearful shell" for no apparent reason.
"[T]o expect Ms. Todd to ever break the grip of Autism and meaningfully channel her energies toward tasks that are not in some way either dictated, or circumscribed, by the demands of her disorder would be to dream the impossible dream," he wrote in Todd v. Access Group, 10-00091.
"You hardly find a student loan debt case where the debts are discharged," said Frank Turney, a solo practitioner based in Catonsville, Md., who represented Todd. "This situation had a client who had some serious disabilities."