The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Bankruptcy Court has the power to discharge student loan debt without an undue hardship claim. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous decision. [SCOTUSblog]
The debtor in this case filed a plan with the Bankruptcy Court that proposed to discharge a portion of his student loan debt, but he failed to initiate the adversary proceeding as required for such discharge. The creditor received notice of, but did not object to, the plan, and failed to file an appeal after the Bankruptcy Court subsequently confirmed the plan. Years later, the creditor filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4) asking the Bankruptcy Court to rule that its order confirming the plan was void because the order was issued in violation of the Code and Rules.
This was in 1993. The lender did not challenge the discharge until 2000.
Rule 60(b)(4) strikes a balance between the need for finality of judgments and the importance of ensuring that litigants have a full and fair opportunity to litigate a dispute. Where, as here, a party is notified of a plan’s contents and fails to object to confirmation of the plan before the time for appeal expires, that party has been afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate, and the party’s failure to avail itself of that opportunity will not justify Rule 60(b)(4) relief. We thus agree with the Court of Appeals that the Bankruptcy Court’s confirmation order is not void.
We are mindful that conserving assets is an important concern in a bankruptcy proceeding. We thus assume that, in some cases, a debtor and creditor may agree that payment of a student loan debt will cause the debtor an undue hardship sufficient to justify discharge. In such a case, there is no reason that compliance with the undue hardship requirement should impose significant costs on the parties or materially delay confirmation of the plan.Neither the Code nor the Rules prevent the parties from stipulating to the underlying facts of undue hardship, and neither prevents the creditor from waiving service of a summons and complaint. See Fed. Rule Bkrtcy. Proc.7004; Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 4(k). But, to comply with §523(a)(8)’s directive, the bankruptcy court must make an independent determination of undue hardship before a plan is confirmed, even if the creditor fails to object or appear in the adversary proceeding.