Seventh Circuit: Student Loan Borrowers Can Sue Servicers Under State Consumer Protection Laws

Yesterday, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in Nelson v. Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, Inc. in which it concluded that the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) does not preempt state law claims against student loan servicers. The case involves a student loan borrower who brought a putative class action against the loan servicer alleging violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, and constructive fraud and negligent misrepresentation under Illinois common law. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss concluding that these state law claims were expressly preempted by the HEA. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, writing, in part:

The district court’s ruling was overly broad. When a loan servicer holds itself out to a borrower as having experts who work for her, tells her that she does not need to look elsewhere for advice, and tells her that its experts know what options are in her best interest, those statements, when untrue, cannot be treated by courts as mere failures to disclose information. Those are affirmative misrepresentations, not failures to disclose. Great Lakes chose to make them. A borrower who reasonably relied on them to her detriment is not barred by § 1098g from bringing state‐law consumer protection and tort claims against the loan servicer. Tort law has long recognized the difference between mere failures to disclose information and affirmative deceptions. And as we explain below, the Ninth Circuit decision the district court relied upon, Chae v. SLM Corp., 593 F.3d 936 (9th Cir. 2010), does not apply to claims of affirmative misrepresentations in counseling borrowers in distress.

The full opinion is available here.

(Disclosure: U.S. PIRG Education Fund, along with the Center for Responsible Lending, filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff-appellant.)

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