By Leisa Boley Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and attorney near Celina
Graduating from law school does not guarantee the graduate will be permitted to sit for the bar exam. In Ohio, prospective new lawyers who apply to take the bar exam must first pass a character and fitness evaluation. Ohio recently made the national news when the Ohio Board of Bar Commissioners denied a woman the opportunity to take the bar exam and indicated her student loans were a significant part of the reason for the denial. The Ohio Supreme Court has not ruled on the matter, although it heard oral arguments on Jan. 28, 2020.
Cynthia Marie Rodgers, 59, graduated from Capital Law School. She also has an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University. In addition, she began, but did not finish, a master’s program at the school. Rodgers has over $300,000 in student loan debt. Her husband is semi-retired and seeking disability. Together, they owe nearly $900,000 in student loan debt. The Ohio Board of Bar Commissioners seemed concerned about the size of the debt and Rodgers’ testimony that neither she or her husband were repaying the debt because their income was too low to require making payments.
There are federal programs, such as Income Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn, where borrowers who earn below150% of the poverty level for their family size are not required to make any payments on their federal student loan debt. After 25 years in these programs, any remaining federal student loan balance would be forgiven. Rodgers explained that she is enrolled in a 25-year income-based repayment plan that comes to term in six years when any remaining debt would be discharged under the terms of her loan agreement. Rodgers has never been in default on her student loans. It appears her current payment is zero because her income is so low.
The Ohio Board of Bar Commissioners seemed particularly concerned by Rodger’s explanation that a 2001 tree-trimming accident left her disabled (unable to work a 40-hour week) and aware that she would not be able to repay her student loans. In the past 20 years, Rodgers has only been employed for two years as a paralegal. She intends to work part-time in legal services once she becomes a licensed attorney.
The Board denied her application due to her “openly neglected financial responsibilities, and knowingly incurring a substantial amount of student loan debt that she admits will probably never be repaid.” She was, however, invited to reapply for admission in 2024.
In addition to the Board’s concern about her student loan debt, there was discussion of her involvement in 60 lawsuits during the course of her lifetime, many of them frivilous. It is not clear whether her student loan debt alone would have been a reason for denial.
Student debt with no plan or ability to repay, however, was the sole reason for denying Hassan Jonathan Griffin, 41 at the time, admission in January 2011. Griffin owed $170,000 in student loan debt: $20,000 from an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University in 2004 and $150,000 from attending The Ohio State University College of Law, where he graduated in 2008. In addition, he incurred $16,500 of credit card debt while a law student.
After graduating from Arizona State University, Griffin worked as a stockbroker for five and a half years, which paid his expenses. His initial student debt became due in July, 2009. He made no payments. In addition, Griffin made no credit card payments since December of 2008.
The Ohio Board of Bar Commissioners was troubled by Griffin’s lack of a plan or ability to repay his debts. They also criticized him for working part-time for the public defender’s office, instead of seeking full-time employment. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the denial, although he was invited to reapply in 2011.
For many students, educational loan debt is inevitable. These cases point out the need to be conservative when borrowing, while formulating a plan for repayment. After reading these cases, I can only wonder what the Ohio Supreme Court would think if it fully appreciated the debt level of many farmers.