A few months ago, 59-year-old Cynthia Marie Rodgers, who recently graduated from Capital Law School, applied for admission to the Ohio State Bar and underwent their character and fitness review. While the initial reviewers recommended admission, the Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness of the Supreme Court of Ohio started a new investigation where they recommended denial of her application.
In their denial, the board expressed concern about the numerous lawsuits she filed on her own before going to law school. The diverse subject matter of her lawsuits resembles a first-year law school curriculum: personal injury, property law issues, bankruptcy, probate, and an automobile sales dispute to name a few. These lawsuits were filed in federal, state, and municipal courts. The board found that many of these lawsuits were repetitive and possibly frivolous. One of the defendants even filed a motion declaring her a vexatious litigator.
The board was also concerned about her past debts. Rodgers had a history of fighting creditors and avoiding paying debts until they became uncollectible. They also noted the size of her student loans. She and her husband owe a combined total of $900,000. Her share is $340,000 coming from a law degree, a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, and a failed attempt at getting a master’s degree. According to Law School Transparency, a student of Capital Law School receiving no tuition discounts will have $204,390 in student loans upon graduation. Due to an accident that, according to Rodgers, left her disabled, she can only work part time. She told the board that she is on an income-based repayment plan, and she expects to pay only a portion of her income for the rest of her life or until the loans are forgiven.
Based on the above, the board found that Rodgers did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that she had the character and integrity to practice law.
Adam Minsky over at Forbes finds it troubling that the board denied Rodgers’ admission even in part due to her student loans. Although they noted in their decision that Rodgers took on massive student loan debt knowing that it will never be repaid, it is unclear whether the board would have made the same decision based on her student loans alone. However, I think that student loans alone should not disqualify anyone from admission. Otherwise, most lawyers’ careers would end before they begin.
Rodgers’ story offended a lot of people on the internet, even those who I thought would be sympathetic based on their ideology. They accused her of taking advantage of the student loan system, scamming others, and abusing the legal process. For a while I agreed with them and the board. But as I thought more about this, I thought we should be looking at this opinion from a different perspective.
Let’s look at her lawsuits. Maybe some of them were indeed frivolous. She filed them herself most likely because she cannot afford an attorney, and no attorney would help her pro bono or at a reduced cost. Or no lawyer would take her case, which is understandable from a business and professional perspective. But based on the board’s evaluation of a small sample of her lawsuits, it seems as though each of them had some level of objective merit. At least she is not like Jonathan Lee Riches who sued everyone for just about anything from the comfort of his prison cell.
But from her perspective, she filed a lawsuit because of the principle. Maybe she didn’t file the right paperwork or in the wrong court. Maybe she did not do a cost/benefit analysis or did not understand the work and expense a lawsuit entails. All she knows is that somebody wronged her, and she wasn’t going to take it lying down. As she stated, something had to be done, or it wouldn’t be dealt with. Haven’t some lawyers made similar mistakes when they first started practicing? How many lawyers initially wanted to become a lawyer primarily to do what’s right regardless of the obstacles? Or have we all become disillusioned and burned out?
Next, let’s look at her debts. So she may not have paid her debts as agreed because they were either written off or were legally uncollectible due to the passage of time. But the opinion states that all of her current debts have been paid, with the exception of her six-figure student loans. Her background and employment history indicates that before law school she didn’t have the education that would make her competitive for a high-paying job. Not only that, she suffered a serious injury that limited her work options.
Finally, she is on an income-based repayment plan, which is legal and was designed for people in her situation. For those criticizing her for becoming an IBR lifer, how is this different from a young law school graduate who works for the government or for legal aid and takes advantage of PSLF?
If Rodgers owed $34,000 or maybe even $90,000, people would not be upset at her. But she and her husband owe $900,000 in student loans. Her share of the debt, which is $340,000, is not unusual for members of her graduating class. Those who went to more expensive schools are graduating with similar levels of debt and comparable job prospects.
The opinion does not state how the balance got so high. Did Rodgers and her husband use that money to live lavishly before their Ponzi scheme failed, and they were forced to live in subsidized housing? Or was it because loan servicers arbitrarily added usurious “collection fees” that are an additional 25% of the additional balance. Or because they do not know the original balance because the accounts have been shifted from one company to another with paperwork being lost in the process.
Based solely on the facts provided on the opinion, I can understand why the board found that Rodgers did not prove with clear and convincing evidence that she had the character and fitness to be a lawyer. But I think they could have done a better job understanding why she filed these lawsuits and how her student loan debt got so high in the first place.
In the final analysis, the powers that be must predict the future based on past conduct. If Rodgers became a lawyer in Ohio, would she continue to file frivolous lawsuits? Or would she help those without means fight in order to right a wrong? Is it wrong to turn to a legally permissible payment plan that potentially allows her to avoid paying her student loans in full? Or will this encourage unethical behavior that will harm clients? I am not sure if there is a clear and convincing answer to these questions. But if she is denied the right to practice law immediately, the chances of paying down her and her spouse’s loans will go down significantly.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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