Student loan debt in the U.S. totals $1.5 trillion, and more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt.
According to research by Villanova law professor Jason Iuliano, a million student loan debtors have filed for bankruptcy in the past five years. However, 99.9% of them did not include their student loan debt in their bankruptcy filing.
This research was the seed of what would become Reset Button, a new startup founded by Iuliano and Rob Hunter looking to help student loan debtors who have gone through bankruptcy find a new way to include those debts in their filing.
The only way you can include student loan debt in a bankruptcy filing is through litigation. Those cases have been historically less likely to settle out of court than other types of civil cases.
This means that the cost of including student loan debt in bankruptcy filings is, at the very least, around $10,000. Now, if there was some guarantee that you could trade hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt for $10,000-$15,000, you’d obviously do it. But most folks who are already in the process of filing for bankruptcy don’t have a spare $10,000 minimum to spend on a litigator. And even if they did, there is no guarantee they’d win in court, resulting in even more debt and no relief.
This is what Reset Button is trying to change.
To be clear, Reset Button is targeted directly at folks who have already filed for bankruptcy but were told they couldn’t include their student loan debt in those filings, and so they didn’t.
Here’s how it works:
Reset Button has built a network of litigation lawyers who have experience in seeking student loan discharges. When a new user fires up Reset Button, the startup sends them through an evaluation process that collects financial information, etc. to assess whether or not one of those lawyers could litigate the discharge of that user’s student loan debt. That evaluation factors in a number of signals, including past legal cases that are comparable to the user’s situation.
That process also does a lot of the heavy lifting that makes hiring a litigator so expensive. These lawyers often have to do tons of research, tracking down statements and bills and other paperwork, before they can truly get started with the litigation.
Reset Button, as the connective tissue between debtor and lawyer, is able to automate a lot of that process for the lawyers, delivering a package of information on the case and connecting the user with the right lawyer for them.
Reset is also looking to bring down the cost for debtors. The company charges either 12% of the total debt discharged, or $10,000 (whichever is lowest). Reset also allows users to pay that sum over time, in $300 monthly installments. This is in stark contrast to people who hire their own lawyer, who would be responsible for the costs upfront.
Reset Button is able to do this through a payment process called factoring. In short, Reset buys the receivables from the attorney’s fees, and charges the debtor with their own payment plan. Reset makes money from lawyers who pay for the lead generation, the technology services and the marketing apparatus.
Factoring has come under fire from some who say that service providers sometimes raise prices to account for their fee, but Reset Button co-founders Hunter and Iuliano say their lawyers are actually charging less because of the workflow optimization provided by Reset Button.
The company also provides a Knowledge Base for debtors seeking financial guidance and resources, but the only revenue stream comes from the actual litigation of student loan debt in bankruptcy filings. Other services like refinancing, debt consolidation or income-based payments are not provided by Reset Button, and the company has no official partnerships with those types of service providers.
However, Hunter said that it may be an avenue the company explores as it grows.
Perhaps most importantly, Reset Button offers a Fresh Start guarantee. In short, if the lawyer doesn’t manage to get your debt wiped, Reset will pay your legal bills.
There has been movement in the landscape of student loan discharges with bankruptcy.
Essentially, debtors must prove in court that they pass the test of “undue hardship,” which is a notably vague framework. Though there is a bit of variability among the various court circuits, the general idea is that a debtor must prove that they can’t currently pay back the loan, that there will not be a change down the line that will allow them to pay the loan in the future and that they have made every effort to pay the loans in the past.
Historically, that’s been a difficult threshold to cross for the fraction of people who take steps to litigate their student loan debt. However, in small ways, courts seem to be opening up the interpretation of undue hardship.
“There’s a phrase that gets used in these cases that I think perpetuates this myth, and that is to call it a ‘certainty of hopelessness’,” said John Rao, attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “And it’s almost like, as long as you’re still alive and breathing, something could improve for you. That’s just an impossible burden. It’s basically saying you could win the lottery or something. That’s just not the standard I think Congress had in mind.”
In 2015, in a case between Robert E. Murphy and the DOE/ECMC, Rao wrote to the courts arguing that they should reassess the test for undue hardship:
Rather than adopt one existing test over another, we urge this Court to provide a formulation of the undue hardship standard in simple terms, that restricts consideration of extraneous and inappropriate factors not consistent with the statutory language. A finding about whether a debtor’s hardship is likely to persist should be based on hard facts, not conjecture and unsubstantiated optimism.
More recently, a judge in the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of a debtor, wiping more than $200,000 in Kevin Rosenberg’s student debt. Of course, the lenders will be appealing the case.
However, Judge Morris, who presided over the case, wrote in her decision that “most people (bankruptcy professionals as well as lay individuals) believe it impossible to discharge student loans,” and that her “Court will not participate in perpetuating these myths.”
“Society has been led to believe something for decades that is not true, which is probably the biggest initial challenge,” said founder and CEO Rob Hunter . “One of the unfortunate things is the reason that many consumers believe incorrect information is because a lawyer told them that. So, that is a bit of an uphill battle to swim against.”