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A “Key” Victory for Flight School Students

This article should be of interest to all of my SSH clients with loans from KeyBank. It is reprinted from the Higher Ed Watch Blog where it was posted earlier today:

“It appears that KeyBank’s predatory private student loan practices are finally catching up with the company.

Late last month, the bank settled a lawsuit filed by 51 former students from TAB Express International, a defunct flight school in northern Florida, who had accused the lender of colluding with the school to defraud them. The settlement puts an end to the case, which was scheduled to go to trial before a jury this week in a state circuit court in Florida.

Meanwhile, according to a U.S Senator in Florida, the FBI and a group of state attorneys general are investigating the exclusive lending arrangements that KeyBank had with TAB Express and Silver State Helicopters, a Nevada-based chain that shut down suddenly on Super Bowl Sunday last year.

As we have reported previously, there has been in recent years a proliferation of unlicensed and unaccredited trade schools that do not participate in the federal student aid programs and therefore go largely unregulated. Their growth has been fueled by lenders that have “partnered” with these institutions to provide expensive private loans to the at-risk students these schools tend to attract. The lenders have then turned around and, like subprime mortgage providers, securitized the loans, shifting these high-risk loans onto unsuspecting investors.

One of the most aggressive players in this arena has been KeyBank, which has formed exclusive arrangements with dozens of unlicensed trade schools — particularly ones that focus on computer training and flight training. These schools have required their students to pay for the full cost of their programs up front, with tens of thousands of dollars of private loans from KeyBank. Unfortunately, many of these schools have shut down without warning, leaving their students in the lurch — heavily indebted with expensive private loans and little to no practical training.

In case after case, KeyBank has fought vigorously (and often successfully) to force students to pay back these loans. In doing so, the lender has denied borrowers basic protections that are in federal law to protect borrowers from being scammed. For example, the bank has routinely omitted from the promissory notes for its private loans a required notice that asserts the borrowers’ right to have their loans canceled if a school with which it has “a referring relationship” closes down, is not licensed, or engages in fraud. In addition, the bank has tried to prevent students whose schools have shut down from challenging their loan agreements in court.

A Big Victory for Students

In June 2005, TAB Express International shut its doors without notice after KeyBank ended its three-year relationship with the school. Prior to that, KeyBank and TAB had an exclusive arrangement in which the school required students to pay the full cost of attendance — which was around $100,000 — with private loans from the lender before classes even started. The bank sent the money directly to the school. According to the former students’ lawsuit, the students were told that their loans would be forgiven after they completed the training and worked for TAB’s airline for a period of time.

But after enrolling, students became suspicious. “The students became aware of a lack of available instructors, simulators, and aircraft at the flight school as the school continued to increase the number of enrollees,” the lawsuit stated. Eventually, they realized that “TAB had no airline.” The lawsuit said that the students repeatedly brought their concerns to KeyBank officials but were rebuffed, and the lender continued to help market the school to prospective students.

When the deal finally collapsed, the lawsuit said, KeyBank officials tried to convince the students to take advantage of a “train out option” that would have required them to take on additional private loan debt and to waive their right to pursue legal action. Most of the students were not persuaded.

Instead, they decided to pursue a lawsuit against KeyBank. They won a major victory last year when the Florida State Appeals Court rejected an effort by the lender to enforce a “venue restriction clause” included in the students’ private student loan promissory notes. That clause would have required them to re-file their case in KeyBank’s home state of Ohio, which has much weaker consumer protection laws than Florida.

With only weeks before the jury trial was to start, KeyBank decided to come to terms with the former students. Under the settlement, the bank agreed to discharge the borrowers’ private loans, which were worth about $5 million, and to pay a portion of their legal fees. The company, however, did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Under Scrutiny

Whether or not KeyBank wittingly helped schools like TAB Express and Silver State Helicopters exploit students is sure to be the focus of an investigation that the FBI is conducting of the lender’s activities. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) revealed the existence of the FBI probe in a letter he sent to one of the former TAB Express students last fall that was obtained by Higher Ed Watch. The letter also noted that “the Florida Attorney General’s Office is also conducting a formal investigation into the matter as part of a larger multistate group of Attorneys General.”

At Higher Ed Watch, we are pleased that federal and state investigators are taking these cases seriously. While justice has been served for former students of TAB Express, there are many others who are being forced to repay tens of thousands of dollars in expensive private loan debt for training they never received. Hopefully, they won’t have to wait for their day in court before their debt is forgiven.”

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