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SIBLEY v. USDE

December 21, 1995

GEORGE SIBLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ASPEN

 MARVIN E. ASPEN, Chief Judge:

 After the plaintiff, George Sibley, defaulted on a federally insured student loan, the United States Department of Education undertook to collect the debt by offsetting a portion of Sibley's salary. Sibley unsuccessfully tried to convince the Department that the offset would cause financial hardship, and invoked various administrative proceedings, including two hearings before officials independent of the Department. Now the plaintiff brings this pro se action against the Department, alleging that the rejection of his hardship request violated, among other things, the Administrative Procedure Act and various constitutional rights. Presently before this court is the Department's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, we grant the motion.

 I. Background

 In 1980-81, Sibley borrowed a $ 9337 student loan from a commercial lender as part of a loan program by which a state agency, the Illinois State Scholarship Commission (ISSC), guaranteed payment to the lender; the federal government in turn guaranteed payment to the ISSC. In 1982, the ISSC reimbursed the lender after Sibley made no payments and defaulted on the loan. Def.'s 12(M) P 2; Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 4. By this time, Sibley was a full-time Internal Revenue Service employee. From 1982 until 1988, the ISSC and Sibley unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a repayment plan. Pl.'s Resp., Exs. 2, 4-14. In July 1988, the Department began its collection efforts by notifying Sibley that, if he and the Department could not agree on a repayment schedule, the Department would "offset" 15% of his "disposable pay" *fn1" from each paycheck. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 7.

 In response, Sibley requested copies of the Department's records regarding the loan, and he received those copies in January 1989. On February 27, 1989, Sibley asked the Department to forego the 15% offset because it would cause "extreme financial hardship," 34 C.F.R. § 31.8(b), and the plaintiff submitted supporting materials to the Department. However, on July 7, 1989, the IRS informed the plaintiff that it had received a notice of offset from the Department, and would soon begin to withhold 15% of Sibley's disposable pay. Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 16. On July 20, Sibley spoke with Juanita Gentry, the chief of research and support in the Department's Chicago Collections Center. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 10. As a result of the conversation, Gentry considered and denied the hardship request on August 1, id., Exs. 11, 12; Gentry Decl. P 5, and then Gentry informed Sibley on August 3 that she had forwarded the documents in support of his hardship request to the Hearings Unit for written review. Def.'s Mot., Exs. 10, 12. Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 5514(a)(2) and 34 C.F.R. § 31.7(a), a hearing official independent of the Department was assigned to hear Sibley's request.

 On October 23, 1989, the hearing official determined that the 15% offset would not cause extreme financial hardship. On March 1, 1990, the Department sent the hearing official's decision to Sibley and informed him that he should arrange for repayment or else the offset would commence. Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 18. In response, an attorney with the National Treasury Employees Union asserted on Sibley's behalf that the plaintiff had not requested a written hearing, but instead had requested internal consideration of the hardship request; in any event, the Union attorney complained, the Department had also failed to inform Sibley that he could demand an oral hearing. Id., Ex. 14.

 Rather than respond to Sibley's letter, the next correspondence from the Department was yet another form letter, sent in November 1993, warning that the Department would initiate offset. Def.'s Mot., Ex. 15. Sibley wrote to the Hearings Unit in Washington, D.C., referring the Unit to the union attorney's letter. Id., Ex. 16. That letter made its way to the Department's Chicago office, and on June 14, 1994, the Department reiterated that its present position was to reject Sibley's hardship request. Id., Ex. 17. *fn2" Next, the plaintiff wrote another letter, declaring that he "requested an oral hearing" before an independent official, but that he also wanted a "delay in proceedings" in order to submit a hardship request to the Department's regional office. Id., Ex. 18.

 Accordingly, the Department informed Sibley of the supporting materials required for regional level review; in response to Sibley's request for an oral hearing, the Department explained that, if the regional office found in Sibley's favor, then the Department would assume that he would forego an oral hearing. Id., Ex. 19. Sibley's next move caused some confusion; he sent the requested materials for regional office review, but also stated that he did not wish to waive the oral hearing. Id., Ex. 20. Apparently believing that even a favorable regional office decision would not appease Sibley, in September 1994, the Department simply referred Sibley's hardship request for oral hearing; unfortunately, the letter informing Sibley of this referral did not clearly explain what happened, although the letter did indicate that additional documents should be sent to the "Hearings Unit." See id., Ex. 21. In any event, Sibley provided further supporting materials in late September 1994.

 Next, in a letter dated November 16, 1994, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Barbara Lauren of the Merit Systems Protection Board informed Sibley that she had been assigned to conduct the oral hearing. Id., Ex. 23. The ALJ had scheduled the hearing for December 7, and explained that the hearing would be by telephone unless Sibley explained, by November 30, why a face-to-face hearing was necessary and who Sibley would call as witnesses in such a hearing. In addition, the letter explained the regulations that would govern the oral hearing, and detailed the documentation Sibley should provide. The ALJ also requested a telephone number where Sibley could be reached at the scheduled hearing time.

 Rather than comply with the ALJ's requests, Sibley expressed confusion to the ALJ, asserting that he was expecting a regional office determination, not an oral hearing. Id., Ex. 24. In addition, Sibley posed ten detailed questions to the ALJ, and also asked for a face-to-face hearing and a continuance until January 7. In response, the ALJ answered the ten questions, moved the hearing to December 12, and refused to hold a face-to-face hearing because Sibley had failed to identify who would testify and why telephonic testimony would be inadequate. Id., Ex 25. Additionally, the ALJ furnished Sibley with a copy of the regulations governing the hearing, 34 C.F.R. part 31. Finally, the ALJ warned Sibley that if he failed to provide a telephone number for the scheduled hearing, the ALJ would render a decision on the written record only.

 However, Sibley responded by "refusing to participate in a telephone interview because it violates my statutory right to a face to face hearing," complained that the ALJ inadequately explained the "form and format of the interview," and asserted that the ALJ's refusal to postpone the hearing was "arbitrary and capricious." Id., Ex. 26. The plaintiff requested reassignment to another ALJ. On December 21, 1994, the ALJ denied reassignment, and responded to the plaintiff's complaints. Id., Ex. 27. Next, on December 22, the ALJ issued a fourteen page decision holding that the 15% offset would not cause extreme financial hardship. Id., Ex. 28.

 Finally, the plaintiff filed the instant action. From what we can discern, Sibley attacks not only the ultimate decision denying his hardship request, but also contends that he has been denied due process and equal protection of the law, suffered cruel and unusual punishment, and subjugated to slavery under the Thirteenth ...


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