Robert Bowman Redux, Times Two, But Ohio’s Nicer Than New York

For several years I chronicled the frustrating travails of aspiring lawyer Robert Bowman. He was the New York law student repeatedly turned down for membership in the bar by  a panel of New York judges, who determined that he did not have the requisite good character to be admitted to the practice of law in New York because he owed nearly a half-million dollars in student loans. Not paying back financial commitments is one of the specific components of “moral turpitude,” which will block anyone from becoming a lawyer, though it will seldom get one kicked out of the profession after one becomes a lawyer. Go figure. The panel kept rejecting Bowman  because they felt his debt was per se proof of  irresponsible and negligent financial management, making him an unacceptable risk for any client.

A New York bar association subcommittee investigated, and  concluded that far from being of dubious character, Bowman was an individual of “exceptional character,” with unusual perseverance, humility and tenacity. It strongly recommended him for admission to the New York Bar, despite the outstanding debts. Ireaclize now that I never told Ethics Alarms readers “the rest of the story”: Bowman is a New York lawyer now. He finally won his appeal, though the news media, which chronicled his failures, decided that his ultimate success wasn’t newsworthy.

How do I know this? Bowman contacted me himself to tell me. He said he was grateful to all the people who had supported his quest, and was telling each of them, individually, in person.

Now comes the story, also with a possible happy ending, of another frustrated lawyer-to-be with similar issues, this time in Ohio, although I must say that her circumstances seem a bit more difficult to excuse. Cynthia Marie Rodgers (above) is a Capital University School of Law graduate whose Ohio character and fitness application was rejected because she has nearly twice as much school loan debt as Bowman, almost $900,000.

Unlike Bowman, who had kept working at menial jobs and trying to pay back the debts even as they compounded, Rodgers seems to have no clear plan to ever repay the sum. Nonetheless, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this week that she can can take the Ohio bar exam,

The court ruled for Rodgers because, the majority said, she was candid about her financial situation and so far has complied with the terms of her student loan repayment plan, hopeless though it appears to be. Rodgers is disabled as a result of a 2001 accident, and can’t work a full week.  Her school debt was  consolidated with her husband’s, and he also can’t make loan payments because he’s semi-retired and seeking disability

Rodgers represented herself in a January  Ohio Supreme Court hearing, and told the court she was  enrolled in a 25-year, income-based repayment plan that comes to term in six years, at which point any remaining debt would be discharged. She also told the court about other unpaid debts that no longer show up on her credit report, demonstrating her honesty. Based on this, the  Court disagreed with the previous decision that Rodgers had neglected her financial responsibilities.

“On the contrary, it appears that she is currently meeting all of her financial obligations with the exception of the one disputed consumer debt mentioned above and that she has taken full advantage of the opportunities that the federal-student-loan program has made available to further her educational goals,” the Court wrote.

The board that rejected her Character and Fitness application also mentioned the many—60????—- frivolous lawsuits Rodgers filed in the past, mostly before she had attended law school.

“At her character and fitness hearing, Rodgers admitted that she was too emotionally involved in those cases and that although she did not know what she was doing when she filed them, she felt ‘something needed to be done’ to correct an injustice. She filed many of the cases herself because she could not afford to hire an attorney,” the Court wrote.

In a dissent, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. Fischer disagreed (you can read the whole decision here):

“Rodgers’ lack of diligence in keeping track of her student-loan obligations and her acknowledgment that she will never be able to repay those loans indicates that she believes that those debts are not her problem and that she is relying on someone else (most likely, in this case, the taxpayers) to take care of her debts for her. If this is how she handles her own financial responsibilities, how will she handle her clients’ financial issues?”

My conclusion from all of this? Robert Bowman should have applied to the Ohio Bar and skipped New York. He would have saved a lot of time.


Pointer and Facts: ABA Journal

14 thoughts on “Robert Bowman Redux, Times Two, But Ohio’s Nicer Than New York

  1. How in the hell can anyone rack up 500K or 900K in student debt? If this debt is for actual legal education tuition and fees maybe the moral turpitude clause ought to apply to the school’s faculty and administration who feel it necessary to indenture someone to that degree for simply wanting to be educated to practice law.

    • It appears to be a consolidation of both her and her husband’s loans, but, yes, that is a staggering amount of money for even two degrees.

      I agree wholeheartedly about universities charging that much reflects on them poorly. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “There ought to be a law”, but we live in the United States and don’t tell people how much money they are allowed to spend, regardless of how foolish the spending is.

      On the other hand, these were student loans, so perhaps the government should start putting limits on how much it is willing to finance per person per degree, depending on the field of study.

      • “…perhaps the government should start putting limits on how much it is willing to finance per person per degree, depending on the field of study.”

        Those are fighting words. If you ever want to make yourself unpopular in academia, suggest that colleges should prepare students for careers, especially careers needed by society and the economy. Remember, only 1.5% of college bachelor’s degrees are awarded in all the physical science combined. Less than 5% are awarded in all the engineering fields combined. Psychology degrees alone are 6.5%. If you put such limits, you would eliminate probably half of the college students and faculty from the US.

        • I am not inclined to yearn for popularity among academia these days. However, perhaps, if government limited the amount of student loans in some respects, tuition would go down, maybe?

            • I would suggest a different approach. Instead of financing student’s education we begin allocating funding that gives preference to programs that develop talent. This is not to say that if a person truly wants to go into some esoteric subject that may have little market value they cannot do so, I only mean that those programs should not be subsidized to keep tuition down as we could use those funds for those in programs of study that in fields that are graduating too few to keep pace with demand for those fields.

              We always seem to approach labor cost issues from a demand management side instead a supply side. What if government subsidized the cost to become a medical doctor, engineer or scientist to equilibrate the cost of those programs to equal the upfront costs of say a an MPA, MFA or MBA. I would have no issue if the baseline subsidy rate was the cost associated of obtaining a quality Liberal Arts degree that included proficiency exit exams in Math, Science, Reasoning, English and Foreign languages.

              We do not need thousands of General Studies majors that requires no organized program of study. If you want to get a degree in Gender Studies or “Sports Management” go for it but don’t ask to have taxpayers subsidize it by guaranteeing your student loans and a reduced interest rate when the market for such occupations is relatively minute.

              If we go a step farther, the average student tuition reflects only about a third of the total cost (Maryland) The remainder at the community college level comes from County and State subsidies. This is where the public sector has an important role as the first two years are primarily when the student takes the state mandated courses of study. As we move up into upper division course work the state should create a subsidy schedule that addresses the needs of the taxpayers as a whole and not the individual student. If we need more Health Care graduates – doctors, nurses, technicians etc. shift the funds to those programs instead of other programs in which the graduates cannot, or have difficulty finding work. In short, instead of some massive “Kirwan” style subsidy program we should evaluate ROI on education subsidies.

              The goal of student loans is to help the student acquire to acquire the ability to reason and how to learn. It is designed to teach you the tools of critical analysis and the facts that undergird the learning process. College cannot open up the student’s head and pour in all the facts known on a given subject. No school will graduate a proficient lawyer, doctor, accountant or any other professional. It can only graduate students who have the most minimal skill set necessary to enter into that profession. The ones that rise to the top in their professions worked at developing their thinking and learning skills in college and beyond.

              We have thousands of people graduating with Poly-Sci, Psychology, and Communications degrees that cannot create any real lasting value without first obtaining substantial specialized training for the industry by the firm within that industry in which they wind up becoming employed, so why subsidize education that provides little to know return on taxpayer investment? I could go on but I have said this all before and that is why I left higher education.

          • You mean, students might shop around more and look for a school that fits their ability to pay? Maybe they would spend more time on their classes, making sure they pass all of them, take all their required classes when they are supposed to take them, and graduate on time? Maybe they would not go on expensive ‘study abroad’ and other ‘experience’ courses? Maybe they would forgo the apartment-style living in favor of the much cheaper traditional dorms?

    • I know someone who did this. I also saw a local story about someone who did this. In each case, they stayed in college for decades living off student loans and getting degree after degree. The one I know personally eventually became a D.O. with a niche specialty and became ‘the Osteopath of the stars’, paying off all his loans in under a decade. The other became an English teacher after 30+ years in college and raising 2 children to adulthood on student loans.

  2. As bad as the total amounts are, it’s the repayment plans which anger me more.

    They were set up to be rather simple – whatever your income based repayment amount is, pay it. If you pay it on time for 10, 20, or 25 years, depending on the line of work you’re in and the type of degrees you have, and the rest would be excused upon reaching that date.

    But now people have been doing it for 10, 15 years, and applying for the forgiveness. And they’re finding the beurocracy in charge of discharging them is as willing to let them off the hook as a hungry time share salesman. Around 90% of the applications are rejected, often for something as paltry as “you used the wrong form to start this all those years ago. Here’s the form you should have used – start over.” And the whole time the clock is ticking, the interest is rising.

    So many people were turned away, they they set up an appeals process – which seems to have the same terrible numbers. 90-95% of the people appealing are rejected. And the clincher is, that for the few who do get the remainder of their debt wiped away, the IRS views it as a gift, and so the whole number becomes taxable as income.

    Meanwhile, Navient, the company which holds and administers most of the student loans, has been successfully sued and reprimanded by the courts for not telling people about the new income based plans, instead simply offering them year after year of deferments – which lets the interest continue to climb, but without the time sensitive possibility of relief at the end. Add in the non-dischargable nature of the debts through bankruptcy, and you can begin to see why so many are willing to gamble on simply walking away from the debts. It’s a mess, and it’s a bubble, but they’re to invested in it to let it pop.

    • I don’t disagree with your assessment overall. The details are a bit more subtle.

      So far, the debt forgiveness plans created by the Obama Administration are about a little over 10-years old. This means only the 10-year plans are maturing. The 10-year plans are the teacher, non-profit, and public administration programs. Persons employed in qualified position would have their debt forgiven after 10 years.

      Of course, the standard plan is 10 years.

      So, persons participating in such plans had to be enrolled in an extended income-based plan to receive the benefit. The theory is that these public service jobs were low paying, but required degrees. To provide relief for the low pay, they’d received reduced payments AND forgiveness if they stayed in that career for at least ten years.

      Of course, they had to enroll in a qualifying extended income-based plan payment, and had to properly enroll in the public service forgiveness program. Accomplishing each step individually and thus both combined correctly is where the problems are occurring.

      Of course, all these enrollment steps were performed a decade ago, so documentation and memories of what was done have faded.

      The plans were incompetently implemented, making proper enrollment (or notification that improper enrollment occurred) difficult or impossible. They are now being incompetently processed, with error correction or appeals processes opaque. (Full disclosure, a teacher-friend of mine went through all this, and got denied.)

      Thus, so far, it is only would-be participant’s in the public service program that are being adversely impacted. It remains to be seen another 10 years what may happen to would-be participant’s of the other programs.

      One ballooning problem facing this population, that is not often talked about, is that the forgiven debt amount counts as income. So, someone who is expecting relief from the burden of say a $100,000 dollar balance in debt may suddenly find themselves with say a $50,000 tax bill (due the following April, no less!), depending on what bracket forgiveness income falls under.

      So, a long term structured payment may be partially forgiven, but will result in a huge payment due almost immediately. Congress has vaguely talked about proactively addressing this looming tax crisis, but of course it has better things to do….

      • There is an exception to the cancelled debt being income to you. If you’re insolvent at the time your debt is cancelled, you can exclude that cancelled debt from income up to the amount you are considered insolvent. You probably need a tax professional to figure this out correctly, but it can be worth exploring.

    • Gee, its like the government is in charge of all the student loans! We need a government program to fix this government program!

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