Dawson v. Great Lakes Educ. Loan Servs., Inc.

Decision Date03 February 2016
Docket Number15-cv-475-bbc
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Wisconsin

Plaintiff Meredith D. Dawson took out student loans owned by defendant United States Department of Education and serviced by defendant Great Lakes Higher Educational Loan Services, Inc. She contends that defendant Great Lakes Higher Educational Loan Services violated both the terms of her loan agreements and federal regulations governing the administration of her loans when it capitalized interest that accrued during a particular type of administrative forbearance period. She asserts that once this interest was capitalized it began to accrue further interest at the rate of approximately $51.00 per week that she should not have to pay. She seeks to hold the Great Lakes defendants—Great Lakes Higher Educational Loan Services, its parent corporation and certain Great Lakes executives—liable for negligence, negligent misrepresentation and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1964. She also contends that the Great Lakes defendants' improper capitalization of interest supports a breach of contract claim against the government defendants—the United States of America, the United States Department of Education and United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Presently before the court are three motions: the first is the government defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's breach of contract claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on the ground that the federal government is entitled to sovereign immunity with respect to this claim. I agree with the government defendants on this point. Neither the Little Tucker Act nor the Higher Education Act expressly waives the federal government's sovereign immunity with respect to claims for injunctive or declaratory relief, which are the only types of relief plaintiff is seeking. I am not persuaded by plaintiff's characterization of her claim as one for monetary relief for which the government has waived its sovereign immunity.

Second, defendant Duncan has moved for dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) on the ground that plaintiff's complaint does not contain any allegations that Duncan was personally involved in the misconduct at issue. I am denying this motion asmoot because the federal government's sovereign immunity extends to both agencies and federal officers sued in their official capacity, such as defendant Duncan.

Third, plaintiff has moved to dismiss the Great Lakes defendants' counterclaim on the ground that they have not stated a proper claim under the Declaratory Judgment Act. Plaintiff asserts that the counterclaim merely seeks a declaration that these defendants did not engage in the misconduct alleged by plaintiff in her complaint. In other words, the Great Lakes defendants' counterclaim is merely the flip side of the allegations in the complaint. I agree with plaintiff that the Great Lakes defendants' counterclaim is improper. However, rather than dismissing it in its entirety, I will construe the allegations set forth therein as part of Great Lakes' answer, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(c)(2).

Plaintiff alleges the follows facts in her complaint, which I accept as true for the sole purpose of deciding the parties' pending motions.


In 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act. In addition to insuring certain student loans issued by private sector lenders, the Higher Education Act contains four programs designed to assist borrowers with their repayment obligations. These programs include an income-driven repayment program, a loan deferment program, a loan forbearance program and a program that allows borrowers to consolidate their various student loans sothat they make a single monthly payment rather than separate payments for each of their loans. Borrowers can apply for these programs at any time during the life of their loan by completing an application and submitting it to their loan servicer.

When a borrower applies for any one of these four programs, Department of Education regulations require lenders and loan servicers to place the borrower's loans in an "administrative forbearance" status while the borrower's eligibility is assessed and their paperwork is processed. (This type of administrative forbearance is commonly referred to as a "B-9 Forbearance"). Pursuant to Department of Education regulations, interest that accrues during a B-9 Forbearance period is not capitalized. 34 C.F.R. § 682.11(f); 34 C.F.R. § 685.2015(b). Borrowers' Master Promissory Notes—the contracts setting forth the loan terms—similarly provide that interest accrued during a B-9 Forbearance is not to be capitalized.

Sometime between 2006 and 2012, plaintiff borrowed loans that were serviced by defendant Great Lakes Educational Loan Services. On October 3, 2013, plaintiff applied to be placed in an income-driven repayment plan. In connection with her application, plaintiff's loans were placed in B-9 Forbearance status while her paperwork was processed. Approximately two months after the application was submitted, Great Lakes approved it and placed plaintiff in an income-driven repayment plan. On November 28, 2013, the B-9 Forbearance period was terminated and plaintiff's loan status was updated to indicate thatshe was again in a "repayment" period.

During plaintiff's B-9 Forbearance period, her loans accrued approximately $819.65 in interest. This interest was then capitalized, allegedly in violation of both the governing federal regulations and the terms of plaintiff's Master Promissory Note, both of which prohibit the capitalization of B-9 Forbearance interest. The improper capitalization of this interest has improperly increased the amount of interest accruing on plaintiff's loans by approximately 14 cents per day ($51 per year).

A. Motion to Dismiss Breach of Contract Claim against Government Defendants

Of the four counts set forth in plaintiff's complaint, the only count directed against the government defendants is count IV, which alleges a breach of contract based on their "failure to rectify" the Great Lakes defendants' practice of improperly capitalizing B-9 Forbearance interest. The government defendants have moved to dismiss this claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on the ground that they are entitled to sovereign immunity.

One threshold issue in any suit against the federal government is whether the action is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under this doctrine, the United States cannot be sued unless it gives express consent to the jurisdiction of the court in which it issued. Hercules, Inc. v. United States, 516 U.S. 417, 422 (1996). It is the plaintiff's burden to demonstrate that the federal government has waived its sovereign immunity and consented to suit. Macklin v. United States, 300 F.3d 814, 819 (7th Cir. 2002); Welch v. United States, 409 F.3d 646, 650-51 (4th Cir. 2005); Stockman v. Federal Election Commission, 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998). All purported waivers of sovereign immunity must be "strictly construed, in terms of [their] scope, in favor of the sovereign." Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192 (1996). If the plaintiff fails to meet its burden of establishing that the federal government waived its sovereign immunity, the case must be dismissed. Macklin, 300 F.3d at 819.

In order to carry her burden of establishing that the federal government has consented to be sued, plaintiff must identify a federal statute in which "Congress has expressly and unequivocally waived [its] sovereign immunity." Barmes v. United States, 199 F.3d 386, 388 (7th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff relies on two statutes that she says waive the federal government's sovereign immunity: the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), and the Higher Education Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(2).

1. The Little Tucker Act

Plaintiff's argument that the government defendants have waived their sovereign immunity is founded primarily upon the Little Tucker Act, which provides in relevant part:

[T]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the United States Court of Federal Claims, of . . . [any] . . . civil action or claim against the United States, not exceeding $10,000 in amount, founded either upon the Constitution or any Act of Congress, or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.

28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2). Although the Little Tucker Act constitutes an express and unequivocal waiver of the federal government's sovereign immunity with respect to certain types of claims, United States v. Bormes, 133 S. Ct. 12, 16 (2012), I agree with the government defendants that the Little Tucker Act's waiver does not extend to the type of contract claims at issue here.

The Little Tucker Act has long been construed as waiving the federal government's sovereign immunity only with respect to claims that seek monetary relief in the form of "actual, presently due money damages." Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879, 914-15 (1988); United States v. Testan, 424 U.S. 392, 398-99 (1976); United States v. King, 395 U.S. 1, 3 (1969); Todd v. United States, 386 F.3d 1091, 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2004). Claims for any type of equitable or nonmonetary relief, such as injunctive or declaratory relief, do not fall within the Little Tucker Act's ambit. Sharp v. Weinberger, 798 F.2d 1521, 1523-24 (D.C. Cir. 1986) ("We know of no case in which a court has asserted jurisdiction either to grant a declaration that...

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