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He garnered some sympathy from two lower courts, but a three-judge appeals panel isn’t letting a Minnesota lawyer off the hook from repaying his massive student loan debt. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a bankruptcy court and a district court and found that attorney Mark Allen Jesperson could not discharge more than $360,000 in student loan debt in a Chapter 7 proceeding. The two lower courts had found that repaying the “shockingly immense” debt would create an undue hardship for Jesperson. But the appeals court on Wednesday determined that his “self-imposed limitations,” which resulted in a gross income of $48,000, were no excuse for nonpayment. The appeals court found that the lower courts should have considered in their undue hardship analysis Jesperson’s eligibility for federal loan repayment assistance under the Income Contingent Repayment Plan (ICRP). Jesperson, a 2000 graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., had amassed $363,218 in student loan principal, interest and collection costs when he filed for bankruptcy in 2005. According to the ruling, he worked as a judicial clerk on the island of Saipan after graduation, then as an attorney with Alaska Legal Services and later as a legal temporary worker with Kelly Services. “He quit each job for a variety of personal reasons,” the decision said. ECMC v. Jesperson, No. 07-3888. Jesperson could not be reached for comment about the decision. His attorney, Monica Lynn Clark, of counsel with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis, declined to comment. As part of Jesperson’s bankruptcy filing, he sought debt relief from his student loans, claiming undue hardship as an exception to the general rule that student loans are not dischargeable. According to the decision, he had not repaid any of his student loans. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota in 2007 found that Jesperson’s employment track record was “besmirched by a patent lack of ambition, cooperation and commitment.” However, that court also determined that, based on a 33 percent tax bracket and Jesperson’s monthly expenses, which included child support, the surplus left to pay his student loans was “at best a trifle” and was “more likely a fiction.” The student loan lenders argued in bankruptcy court and in federal district court that if Jesperson had used the federal repayment program, his loan payments would have equaled no more than $629 per month and would have contributed to a surplus for him of $900 per month. But both courts declined to consider that calculation, finding that they could not factor the federal loan repayment program into a hardship analysis because the program did not permit a “fresh start” for Jesperson, as permitted under bankruptcy law. The appeals panel disagreed. “If the debtor with the help of an ICRP program can make student loan repayments while still maintaining a minimal standard of living, the absence of a fresh start is not undue hardship,” it said. The panel also found that the lower courts’ calculations of Jesperson’s monthly income and expenses based on 33 percent tax bracket was incorrect. Instead, it said that the correct tax bracket was 17.5 percent.

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