What's different about Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's lawsuit against student-loan servicer Navient? The company has call centers and offices in Wilkes-Barre.
Other states, such as Illinois and Washington, have also sued Navient. "But they can only file suit on behalf of their state residents. My suit covers all students in the U.S., including Pennsylvania, because of the location of the employer. The abusive practices all over the country occurred in Wilkes-Barre," Shapiro said Friday.
As of September, Pennsylvania residents alone had filed 1,059 complaints against Navient with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and collectively owed (along with their cosigner parents) $61.8 billion in private and federal student loans as of December 2016. The lawsuit Shapiro filed last week alleges that Navient overcharged 1.5 million students to the tune of $4 billion in interest.
Why sue now? Probably because other states' lawsuits have survived motions to dismiss, so the courts seem to be smiling on these cases so far.
Those who sign student loans for themselves or their college kids likely know the name Navient, which services loans on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education as well as federal (FFELP) and private education loans. Pennsylvania college graduates in 2016 owed an average of $35,759 — the second highest average of any state, Shapiro's office estimated.
Will students get their money back? "They may get money back, or in some cases, debt forgiveness," Shapiro said.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, could affect hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, including anyone who received private student loans from Sallie Mae, Navient's predecessor, or who had federal or private student loans serviced by Navient and experienced issues with repayment.
Beginning in 2009, Navient steered student borrowers into short-term loan "forbearances" that instead continued for the long term, accruing interest and adding to the loan's principal, the suit alleges. Between 2010 and 2015, Shapiro said, "Navient added up to $4 billion in interest charges in this way to the principal balances of borrowers."
Navient, for its part, fired back: "The allegations are completely unfounded, and the case was filed without any review of Pennsylvania residents' customer accounts. We comply with the rules that govern the student loan program as set by Congress and the Department of Education, and there are no allegations that we have violated these rules." Navient said that 49 percent of loans for the government are enrolled in income-driven repayment plans, and that Navient-serviced borrowers are 37 percent less likely to default than those serviced by others.
On Friday, Lisa Stashik, head of Navient's Pennsylvania servicing center, said, "The claims peddled by our Pennsylvania attorney general are not only unfounded, they demean the work of my colleagues. For more than 29 years, I have worked with our Wilkes-Barre employees to service millions of student loans, and process all of the payments made to Navient by its customers nationwide."
Pennsylvania's lawsuit seeks restitution to all borrowers; disgorgement of Navient profits plus penalties; and possible loan forgiveness. Shapiro also seeks to have Navient cease collecting on loans and fix negative credit information it furnished to credit bureaus. Student borrowers can file complaints with the Office of Attorney General at https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/Complaints/Consumer_Complaint_Form/. They can also call 1-800-441-2555 or email email@example.com.
We asked two student borrowers why they refinanced from lenders such as Sallie Mae and servicers such as Navient to other companies such as SoFi. The typical student debt load for millennials is $41,200, surpassing their median annual income of $38,800.
Katie Leis, a Drexel-educated engineer, graduated with $99,000 in debt and refinanced her 9.5 percent and 6 percent loans from Sallie Mae down to 3.5 percent to 5 percent at SoFi.
"When you're paying a few thousand dollars a month in loans, that's a huge break," said Leis, 26, who works for a government contractor. "I had an engineering job, so it was easier to get approved."
She asked Sallie Mae about refinancing and "was told, 'No, you get what you pay for.' They offered me forbearance, but I didn't need that. What I signed, I was stuck with. End of conversation."
Her servicer also mistakenly put her loan into repayment while she was still in school – and auto-debited the money, later blaming a computer malfunction.
Amanda Crawford-Staub, 25, is a first-generation college grad living in Northern Liberties. She financed college with private loans through Sallie Mae and then Navient.
"My interest rates were around 10 percent," she said "and I was trying to refinance. SoFi's rates got me down to 7 percent, which is still high, but that was due to my credit score. Now that my income's gone up and my score is higher, I may be able to get a lower rate."